She was pushing a baby stroller when I bumped into her. “Excuse me,” I said, hurrying around her, but she stopped me. “That’s a beautiful skirt. Do you ever give away clothing?” I looked down at my skirt and then back up at the complete stranger in front of me.
Run for the hills! my inner paranoia screamed. She could be dangerous! Don’t get involved! But my mouth, apparently, had a life of its own. “Sure,” I said. And that’s how Chana was in my home that Thursday evening, picking and choosing her way through a large pile of clothing.
I fell asleep that night with a smile lurking on my lips and woke up humming. The high lasted all the way until the bus ride back from work. Then the traffic annoyed me and someone stepped on my foot. Pretty soon I was hurrying along the same street where I’d met Chana, and just the memory of the kind act I committed the night before put a bounce back into my step.
What was it about doing a kindness for a stranger that made me feel so good about myself? Was is the randomness of the act that increased my happiness level?
I mean, I thought I was a nice person every day. How come holding the door open for my coworker didn’t give me that same high? I was determined to find out.
That night I put on fuzzy socks, sat down with a large mug of hot chocolate, and went on a research binge. I wanted to know all about kindness and the lasting effect it has on the doer.
Why would anyone do a completely altruistic act of kindness if they get absolutely nothing out of it. So the question is: Are they getting something out of it?
The research was mixed.
Psychology professor and leading happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. conducted a study in 2004 to determine whether committing five random acts of kindness would increase positive emotions.
The short-term study revealed the subjects possessed heightened levels of positive emotions, particularly in the participants who carried out all five acts of kindness on the same day. Spreading the acts over a week, Lyubomirsky theorized, “led to a repetitive and often unoriginal pattern that either didn’t change the level of positive emotions or, in some cases, even lowered it.”
Kindness with Benefits
“Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable increase in wellbeing [for the doer] of any exercise we’ve tested.” says Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology. Numerous studies have shown that receiving, giving, or even witnessing acts of kindness increases immunity and the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood in the brain. Hence, the lingering feelings of contentment. Some even call this the “helper’s high”.
From Babes to Bosses
A recent study at the University of British Columbia showed that even toddlers may reap psychological benefits from giving. Researchers compared toddlers’ displays of happiness after giving their own Goldfish cracker or a Goldfish cracker handed to them by a researcher to a puppet. They found that the toddlers displayed greater happiness when they shared their own crackers than when they gave away the cracker provided by the researcher.
Similarly, various studies show that people who have experienced a positive event in the past hour are more likely to help the next stranger they meet in need, be it the beggar collecting or the woman who spilled a Coke on herself on the train. This high explains why we help people, even at a cost to ourselves.
Chicken or Egg?
So: Does generosity make us happier or are happier people more generous?
Rather than thinking of it as a cause-and-effect relationship, consider happiness and generosity as “intertwining entities”. Doing for others increases positive emotions, which heightens our sense of purpose, regulates stress, and improves short- and long-term health. All of that contributes to an increased level of happiness, causing us to feel more generous, creating a cycle of giving and happiness.
Ah, the joys of
giving, I mean research.
Empathy, Compassion, and Burnout
Empathy is reminiscent of fire. It can light the way for others, but at the same time it can burn. Empathy requires feeling what the other person is feeling, “to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain”. Compassion on the other hand, involves concern and a desire to help, without the experience of mirroring someone else’s anguish.
Neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki conducted studies comparing empathy and compassion and found that empathy, overall, lead to uncomfortable, heavy feelings. When subjects experienced empathetic burnout, they often turned away from generosity altogether. On the flip side, the group immersed in compassion were able to consistently go out of their way to be more kind.
Bottom line: Too much empathy and we drown, feel take advantage of, vulnerable, and often retreat away from the world and into ourselves. So when we practice kindness, we need to ensure it’s coming from a place of compassion versus empathy.
Well. Now that my hot chocolate is finished and I’m wiser and oh-so-much more knowledgeable, I challenge us all to 15 days of kindness. Do one random kind act for a stranger each day and let us know what happens!
15 kindness ideas to get you started:
- Tip your taxi driver
- Add money to a stranger’s meter
- Pay for the coffee of the person online behind you
- Get your boss a cup of water when you go to the cooler
- Offer to get your neighbor’s kids from school
- Make dinner for the family that just moved in
- Compliment a stranger’s handbag
- Shovel snow for someone on the block
- Fill up the washing cup after you wash your hands
- Help a harried mom load her kids into the car by the grocery
- Help the person on line in front of you load their groceries onto the conveyor belt
- Let someone cut in front of you with a smile
- Give up your seat on the bus
- Pick up trash from the floor
- Buy a homeless man a bagel and a drink
Just Do It!
For the next 15 days, go outside your comfort zone with one kind deed a day. Do a kindness for a stranger, go that extra mile, take the plunge, and every other cliche in the book. Just do it. And as you reap the benefits of being a giver, watch the effects spill over into every area of your life, brightening it immeasurably.
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About the author:
Ariella Schiller has a B.A. in Psychology and Marketing, which comes in handy when she’s researching for a writing assignment, which is, well, most of the time. Ariella lives in Jerusalem with her family where she has a front row seat to the various complexities of Jewish life. You can connect with her at OKclarity.