Extra reasons to be sound.
“That’s my good deed done for the day.” How often have you professed this to a friend and how did you feel when you said it? Chances are you felt pretty pleased with yourself, because doing good for others actually makes us feel pretty great ourselves, so much so that scientists have nicknamed it The Helper’s High.
Plus, get this. In an age that favours self care, it’s interesting to note that a 2007 study carried out by University of Louisville found that contrary to popular opinion, we actually get a bigger buzz doing things for others than we do when we seek pleasure for ourselves. Good deeds, therefore, may be the best self care of all.
What’s more, science has also discovered that good deeds pay massive dividends for our health too. Various studies have found that altruism, when we put other people’s needs before our own, has a massively positive impact on our wellbeing, helping to reduce stress, strengthen our immune systems and even lower high blood pressure. Truth is, anger and hostility have a hard time existing when we’re being kind, and the absence of negative emotions can only mean good things for our health.
But what is it about good deeds – like giving up your seat on the bus for a stranger or buying a coffee for the person next to you in the queue – that gives us the warm and fuzzies? “Acts of kindness act as a reward system to people,” explains psychologist Dr Jolanta Burke. “We subconsciously know that doing good will make us feel better about ourselves, therefore, acts of kindness act as both motivation to make us feel better and a reward afterwards.” Basically? Being sound boosts our self esteem.
“Another reason may be due to the return on investment,” Jolanta explains.
Kindness is associated with other beliefs such as karma, whereby people do good so that in the future they will be rewarded for it, which makes them feel better. It is also linked to morality; knowing what it means to do good and actually doing it are two different things. Subconsciously, doing good is associated with being a ‘better’, more superior person, therefore acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves.
There’s an element of social acceptance going on here too. “It can also be associated with status, for some people,” says Jolanta. “For example, being seen as a good person at work can enhance our group status. Interestingly, when we do something nice for someone, we like them more, so this bonding works both ways.”
But, full disclosure, Jolanta warns that you shouldn’t necessarily be doing random acts of kindness with your own satisfaction in mind. “Doing interventions with an intention to enhance our happiness can actually reduce it,” she notes. In other words, it’s got to come from a genuine place, not a selfish one.
That’s a tactic Karen, 34, uses when she’s in a bit of a fouler. “It’s when I’m in my worst moods that doing something kind for someone else helps me the most. When I’m in that kind of mindset, it’s absolutely the last thing I want to do, but it definitely makes me feel better.
Sometimes when I’m stuck in really bad traffic in the mornings and feel myself getting angry, I muster up a feeling of kindness in me and I let a couple of waiting cars out in front of me. That might sound mad to some people, but it switches my focus from being angry and irate and having no control of the situation, to actively doing something positive and kind that will make someone else’s morning a little less stressful.
“Does it make the traffic go away? No, but it does make me a little less bothered by it and I feel good for having made someone else’s day just that little bit easier.”
Small gestures like these can create a lasting impression on the recipient – I polled some friends on the random acts of kindness they’ve encountered and they recalled with fondness the times when strangers paid for their parking, complimented their outfit, and even ran across the street to give them an umbrella when it was raining – but can this really spur a chain reaction of good deeds?
Jolanta is dubious. She explains that “People like to be seen as good-doers and for many, receiving is harder than giving.” (True that. How often have you reluctantly accepted a compliment or told your friend you couldn’t possibly let her pay your half of the brunch bill?) “Receiving creates guilt,” Jolanta notes.
Thus you have motivation to keep giving it to others in order to reduce it. A less cynical view might be that the recipients of acts of kindness have enhanced levels of positive emotions, especially if an act of kindness was unexpected, therefore, it allows them to act more altruistically, as giving to others is more likely to happen when we are in a good mood.
Psychology aside, we could all do with being a bit more kind to each other, so how can you make kindness a regular habit? “Firstly, I wouldn’t overdo it, as it may become a chore for us and have the opposite effect,” advises Jolanta. “However, if people want to make it part of their lives, I recommend that they select one day a week, which will become their Act Of Kindness day and when in the shower, they come up with ways in which they can do good today.”
See, “clustering your acts of kindness into one day is most beneficial,” Jolanta explains. “The research recommends three big acts of kindness or five small ones done all in one day to see a positive boost to your wellbeing. Spreading all these acts of kindness throughout the week would not make as much of a difference to your wellbeing.”
Truth is, we live in a pretty scary world where negativity and nastiness can often run riot and that’s why we need kindness more than ever – and perhaps why it seems to have a bigger impact than ever before. Bottom line, being a little nicer to each other can’t hurt. Mahatma Gandhi said to be the change you want to see in the world, and kindness is definitely somewhere to start.