A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with my friend, Rose. She invited a friend of hers to join us, as she thought we might share some common interests. Our lunch partner was a semi-retired doctor who practices part time in Texas, lives part of the year in Sarasota, and spends about three months each year in Paris. Although he immigrated from what was previously Yugoslavia, he has lived in the U.S.for many years. Our conversation led to a discussion about the difference between Europeans and Americans. His view was that Americans operate mostly from intellect, while Europeans tend to operate on the basis of feelings. I found this to be an intriguing observation and have been mulling it over ever since, wondering if it is true.

My first thought was that, until recently, American men were considered to be weak if they cried or appeared to be overly emotional. Conversely, it seemed to be acceptable to be angry. This is, of course changing. It is becoming somewhat common to see men cry – I think I’ve watched men cry on the last three episodes of Big Brother.

Then I thought about the current dialog swirling around the Presidential election with respect to race. The talking heads and pundits have begun openly discussing the unresolved anger still harbored by older African Americans who suffered blatant racism, hatred, and abuse in the days of segregation. The consensus seems to be that, heretofore, it has been considered politically incorrect to openly discuss the issue of race, and that perhaps we can now begin to heal the wounds by talking about our country’s history of discrimination.

I thought about the high incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse in this country. My personal opinion (a hard-earned one, I might add), is that a high percentage of alcoholics and addicts use substances to push down feelings that they cannot or will not deal with. Instead, addicts are frozen in a state of anger, mistrust, fear, and paranoia; seemingly the only emotions they allow to bubble to the surface. It is a well-known fact that addiction – especially drug abuse – is a major factor in crime. Could it be that there is also a strong correlation between crime and the angry emotional state in which most addicts exist?

I even wondered about the high incidence of diseases like cancer in our society, compared to places like Greece and Italy, where they smoke more than we do and have higher carbohydrate diets, yet have half the incidence of cancer. Doctors are increasingly in agreement that there is an emotional contingent to disease. Could it be that Europeans suffer less from diseases like cancer because they openly discuss their feelings, are less angry, and are emotionally more well-adjusted?

Then yesterday I learned about the Second Step program, which is helping kids understand and manage their emotions. While it is one of many programs around the country that teach students social and emotional skills, few of them have been as widely implemented or rigorously evaluated as Second Step. Developed by the Committee for Children – a nonprofit organization in Seattle devoted to helping kids foster emotional well-being – Second Step is now in its 21st year and has been taught to more than nine million children in roughly 25,000 schools throughout the United States and Canada. Researchers have tested it extensively and helped to spread the curriculum because it’s leading to kinder, smarter schools.

Second Step has programs for preschool through eighth-grade classrooms. At all age levels the curriculum focuses on helping kids to empathize with others, control impulsive behavior, and solve interpersonal problems; it begins by helping children understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. Committee for Children’s executive director, Joan Duffell, says, “First, people have to care. We think of empathy and compassion as virtues, but actually they’re skills. Teaching empathy is the core not only of this program but also of all human interaction. Without empathy, we can’t solve our problems.”

Second Step’s supply box is filled with posters, puppets, and black-and-white pictures of kids struggling with real-life situations, such as being teased, being pressured to break rules, or being left out of games. In one picture, a boy named Bob jumps out from behind a tree to scare his friend, Alice. In another, a boy has to stand up to his friends who want his help to spray paint another kid’s garage. Teachers “second step” the scenarios with the kids, asking them to imagine how they would feel if they were the different children in the pictures: How did Alice feel when Bob scared her? What did the boy say to stop his friends from vandalizing the garage? How should Alice respond? How should the boy respond? Second Step gives kids anger management tools to take into high-emotion situations like these.

Older students get more complicated lessons in empathy and altruism. They are presented with a series of hypothetical situations in which they can choose to help others or just look after themselves. The purpose of these problem-solving situations is to alert kids to the long-term and short-term consequences of their actions and help them look for ways to get ahead without putting other people behind.

When I backpacked around the world last year, my unspoken goal was to find a place I liked better than the U.S. I was so fed up with the corruption in our government; our deteriorating freedoms; our sue-happy mentality; and our materialistic viewpoint that I thought there must be a better place to live. In the end, I chose to stay here. The U.S. is not perfect, but traveling opened my eyes to the reality that we are very fortunate for the lifestyle we enjoy in this country.

Reading about Second Step helped me to believe that, although the U.S. may be broken, we can be fixed. I am convinced that getting in touch with our feelings is a critical first step. We are changing. We are opening dialogs. As a society, we are beginning to accept personal responsibility rather than constantly looking for someone to blame for our situation. And for the first time in a very long time I feel hope.