One of the strongest findings in literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s not surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier.
It may be ironic, but being kind and good, even when it’s unpleasant or when one expects or receives nothing in return, may also be in the doer’s self-interest. This is because being generous and willing to share makes people happy.
Plentiful evidence for the reasons (or mechanisms) for why helping brings happiness comes from the psychological theory and research. Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably (e.g., “the homeless veteran may be too ill to work”) and fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community (e.g., it takes a village to raise a child”). Doing acts of kindness often relieves guilt, distress, or discomfort over others’ difficulties and suffering and encourages a sense of awareness and appreciation for your own good fortune. In other words, helping others makes you feel advantaged (and thankful) by comparison (e.g., “I’m grateful that I have my health”). Indeed, providing assistance or comfort to other people can deliver a welcome distraction from your own troubles and ruminations, as it shifts the focus from you to somebody else.
When you commit acts of kindness, you may begin to view yourself as an altruistic (unselfish) and compassionate person. This new identity can promote a sense of confidence, optimism, and usefulness. Helping others or volunteering for a worthy cause highlights your abilities, resources, and expertise and gives you a feeling of control over your life. Some researchers argue that acts of kindness can even promote a sense of meaningfulness and value in one’s life.
Finally, and this is probably the most important factor, kindness can jump-start a cascade of positive social consequences. Helping others leads people to like you, to appreciate you, to offer gratitude. Helping others can satisfy a basic human need for connecting with others, winning you smiles, thankfulness, and valued friendship.
Choose your acts of kindness with care, as any change in your behavior can have unintended consequences, good or bad. Above all, you don’t have to be a Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama; the acts can be small or brief.
The first step in practicing kindness strategy is to select which acts you intend to do, how often, and how much. If you do too little, you won’t obtain much benefit in happiness. If you do too much, you may end up feeling overburdened, angry, or fatigued. If you always let someone ahead of you in line, then, don’t make this your new and special act of kindness. Resolve to do something else.
Continually varying your acts of kindness takes effort and creativity. Here are some ideas. First, if you’re short of money or other resources, give the gift of time: Offer to make a needed repair, weed a garden. Second, surprise someone-with a home-cooked meal, a letter, or phone call. Third, each week try to do more of something that doesn’t come naturally: offering a sincere smile to a cashier or fully listening to a friend’s concerns. Fourth, work to develop your compassion- that is, the willingness to and ability to sympathize with others’ plights and points of view. It is very difficult to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to see the world from his perspective. Fifth, at least once a week do a kind deed about which you tell no one and for which you don’t expect anything in return. Resolve not to sit around and wonder why other people aren’t as considerate as you.
In designing your unique kindness strategy, remember the acts of kindness often have such ripple (or “pay if forward”) effects. One kind act can set in motion a series of kind acts. Another way that acts of kindness can have positive social consequences is that, as recent research shows, simply witnessing or hearing about a kindness leads people to feel “elevated” and increases their desire to perform good deeds.