For some, happiness is a word that conjures up visions of selfish people concerned only with their own pleasure; but this sort of hedonistic approach to happiness is a recipe for serial bursts of pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness. As you know from my earlier articles, when I speak of happiness, I am describing a much richer concept; more akin to what the ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia or “success at being human.”
One of the central elements for living well is how you relate to other people. In this regard, happiness is literally the opposite of self-centeredness or self-absorption. In fact, contrary to many Las Vegas advertisements or Hollywood-lifestyle fantasies, self-absorption is a key ingredient for depression, and single-minded focus on personal pleasure is a recipe for long-term misery.
In this column, I will tell you about the single most effective thing you can do to get an immediate and significant boost to your genuine happiness – and to set the stage for a deeper, long-term happiness as well. It’s simple. It’s not mysterious. But it is substantial:
Do something kind for another person.
We all know that it’s good to be kind. It’s wonderful to be on the receiving end of kindness, and kind acts build trust and create a wonderful atmosphere in which to live, work and flourish. Unfortunately, in the day-to-day mixture of stress, conflict and deadlines, this simple, quiet staple of well-being can become lost amid all the noise and complexity.
As much good as kindness does for others, it also does wonders for us on the giving end. In fact, kindness and happiness go together like Astaire and Rogers; Lennon and McCartney, Peanut Butter and Jam… You get the idea. Kindness and happiness build on each other and reinforce each other. We know this from experience; but it’s nice to also have some research to back it up:
In a study by Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui, and Fredrickson, “Happy People Become Happier Though Kindness,” the authors found some important results:
- Happy people have more positive memories, and more motivation to recognize and perform kind behaviors
- People become happier, kinder, and more grateful when they simply count their own acts of kindness for one week
So this is interesting. Happiness and kindness reinforce one another. Not only do happy people pay attention to and perform more kind acts, but by simply counting our own acts of kindness over the course of a week, our happiness increases, and we become kinder and more grateful as well. Counting our kindnesses is a specific, tangible exercise that we can practice.
I am not advocating counting and hoarding and bragging about our kind acts or keeping a ledger to show others what a wonderful, kind person we are. This is an exercise that focuses our awareness on our own kind behavior. Since we get good at what we practice – for good or ill – by paying attention to our kind acts, we get better at thinking about and noticing kind acts. We thereby build awareness of the intrinsic feelings of joy and increased happiness that comes from doing kind things.
One of my favorite writers, philosopher Eric Hoffer, said it well: “Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”
This is the creation of a benevolent cycle. We do a kind act, feel the joy of it, notice the joy we bring through the doing, and it becomes more attractive for ourselves and for the recipient of our kindness to do more kind acts, feel the joy of it… And the benevolence builds.
There is one important caveat to this, however. There is a fundamental difference between doing kind acts because we want to, and doing kind acts because we are told to. Research from Weinstein & Ryan shows how very important it is for the motivation for kind acts to come from one’s own volition:
- Those who wanted to help someone felt more well-being, vitality, and self-esteem; while those who were told to help either felt no difference in well-being, or felt less well-being.
- Those who wanted to help people helped more than those who were told to help people.
And on the receiving end:
- Those who received help from people who wanted to help felt significantly more well-being from the interaction; while those who received help from people who were told to help felt significantly less well-being.
So kindness is not something that can be forced from us, like toothpaste from a tube. Kindness is generative; it arises from the better side of our human nature, like love and joy. It is created with voluntary intention, grows with action, and flows from a heart that has chosen to be open.
Of course, sometimes giving or receiving kindness can be easier said than done. Earlier in my career I worked quite a lot with clients who had endured severe trauma. When we’ve been so severely betrayed by people who should have loved us, sometimes trusting enough to accept the kindness of another person can be a heroic act – a leap of faith, really. Expressing kindness can just as easily feel like a dangerously vulnerable undertaking.
Yet for some of my clients, finding the courage to give and receive kindness – and to have more kindness towards themselves as well – was exactly what they needed most to heal the old wounds, and to escape the gravitational pull of their past suffering.
The key is to find it in our own heart to want to express kindness toward others. Challenging ourselves to practice more kindness, so that kindness becomes a natural way of being in the world – not for show, and not because it is demanded of us, but as an authentic expression of faith, or as a way of deliberately engaging the better angels of our nature – holds more promise for genuine happiness and joy than most of us realize.
Try paying attention this week to the kind acts that you do, and notice how you feel when you do them. This isn’t about showing off, or getting credit, or keeping score. You may experience what Samuel Johnson described:
We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over.
Expressing kindness expresses warmth and love and caring for people. It helps to grow and spread that spirit, inspiring others to do the same. It reminds us of our own love and caring. It helps people that could use some help. And it makes us personally happier in the process, generating those initial currents that can swirl into a profoundly benevolent cycle.