The first trick to becoming happier: doing what your mother taught you.
And here I don’t mean making your bed (although Gretchen Rubin in her book The Happiness Project argues strongly that that helps as well). Today we’re talking about being kind to others.
A number of studies have proven what you may have suspected anyway: practicing acts of kindness increases your happiness.
So be selfish. Do things for other people.
How we know it works
Psychologists in the field of Positive Psychology have been performing what they call “Happiness Interventions.” These are pretty much just experiments that they run to determine how different things affect the happiness of individuals.
One such experiment was conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon, in which they had participants perform five acts of kindness each week over the course of six weeks. The psychologists measured the participants’ happiness over time using survey questions.
The acts of kindness that the participants completed could be anything from donating blood to visiting a nursing home to feeding a stranger’s parking meter. Whatever large or small act the participant believed to be an act of kindness qualified.
Another study, this one out of the University of Wisconsin, found a link between volunteering and increased happiness as well as better health. This study was not able to determine the causality (does volunteering make people happier and healthier or are happier and healthier people more likely to volunteer?), but it certainly fits with the rest of the research in this area.
In addition to increased happiness, performing acts of kindness and volunteer work may lead you to see yourself as a more kind and compassionate person, which improves your self-image and confidence. Lyubomirsky also suggests that you will gain a greater feeling of control over your life as well as increased meaning and value.
How to get the maximum happiness out of your good deeds
So from a moral standpoint, you should perform acts of kindness as often as possible. (I don’t have any studies or treatises to back me up here, but I feel like that’s not too controversial of a statement.)
However, that is not the business of this blog. So here we will address what the studies show are the best ways to maximize your happiness through performing acts of kindness.
- Timing is Important
The Lyubomirsky/Sheldon study above split participants into two groups. One group performed its five acts of kindness for the week in one day, while the other spread its acts out over the whole week. The former group received a big happiness boost, while the latter did not.
The experimenters posited that this could be because spreading the acts of kindness out made them less noticeable and distinguishable from the normal behavior of the participants. Their takeaway is that you should bunch your acts of kindness together so that they can combine to achieve a greater impact on your happiness.
I won’t disagree with this interpretation, but I will add to it. If the problem is that the acts of kindness were indistinguishable from the participant’s regular daily habits, then why not address that head on?
Make sure that your acts of kindness are new, and that you are not just trying to give yourself credit for things that you already do. Don’t stop holding the door for the person behind you, but you aren’t going to get a happiness boost by continuing to do that. Instead, keep doing that and add something new. Buy a friend a coffee. Give blood. Donate to a charity.
Just make sure that you are adding new and noticeable acts of kindness to your repertoire.
- Mix and match your acts of kindness
Another study was set up similarly to the Lyubomirsky/Sheldon study discussed above. In the new study, two groups of participants performed acts of kindness over the course of ten weeks and tracked their happiness. One group had to perform the same three types of act each week, while the other group was allowed to mix and match as they saw fit.
The group that varied the type of act they performed maintained their happiness boost over the full ten weeks of the study. The group that performed the same types every week dropped off in the middle of the study.
The lesson here is a bit clearer than in the last section. Mix up your acts of kindness! Don’t let your acts of kindness become a boring routine or just another thing to check off of your to do list. Keep finding new and interesting ways to be kind to your fellow human beings.
So to help each other out with this, what are some of your preferred acts of kindness that I haven’t already included?