It can feel terrifically difficult to summon positivity in 2019. But there could be a simple, affordable antidote to the negativity that bombards our daily lives.
Recently published research by Oxford University and Kindness.org showed spending just seven days carrying out, or observing, one kind act a day boosted subjective happiness in participants. What’s more, a higher number of kind acts correlated with higher levels of happiness.
Can being kind for a week make you happier?Credit:Stocksy
The link between kindness and happiness has been investigated extensively over the years – a team of researchers analysed more than 27 studies that showed links between kindness and feelings of happiness in 2018.
Dr Oliver Scott Curry, who worked on both the analysis and the seven-day study, says that while this previous research has shown that helping others makes you happy it had "not looked at whether it makes a difference who those ‘others’ are, for example close family as opposed to distant friends".
The newer research saw different groups each spending a week performing kind acts to either close contacts, strangers, themselves or even observing kind acts, and found all boosted happiness. I decided to put it to the test.
My week of kindness
I commence my week of kindness by meeting a university friend for lunch. As she pulls out her phone to order her food I find myself barking, “No! I’ll get it!"
She’s a little bemused but, after I’ve told her about my week of kind acts, she thinks it’s a lovely idea. I feel pleased, but not dramatically different. I wonder if it’s because, unlike the subjects in the study who were unaware of the purpose, the different groups, and the predicted outcomes: I’m mixing up my kind acts and I know what I’m hoping to get out of it.
Nevertheless, I persevere, and the next day at the local supermarket I spot the perfect opportunity to carry out my kind act for the day. In the toilets, a woman is standing at the hand dryer with loo roll on her shoe. As I point it out, I notice how nice it feels to make a stranger laugh and save them from possible future embarrassment.
By midweek I’m mulling over what the day’s kind act should be on a morning walk, when I see an ambulance parked on the street.
Scrambling in my bag for a pen, I scribble a quick note of appreciation for the hard work of the paramedics and leave it on the windscreen. Hot footing it away, irrationally worried that I may get arrested for leaving a nice note, I experience a huge buzz imagining how the ambulance drivers will feel when they read it. I’m so excited, in fact, that I throw humility to the wind, and message a few friends to tell them.
“Kindness is a way of kick-starting and maintaining the co-operative relationships and supportive social networks that we needed to survive and thrive,” Dr Curry says. “Kindness is partly genetic, and emerges in early infancy, and is celebrated in cultures all around the world."
By Thursday, I decide it’s time to celebrate myself with some self-care. I elect to treat myself to a solo dinner and a couple of glasses of red wine at the local pub.
The following night, I meet with friends at a bar, which progresses on to dancing into the early hours at a club. Possibly fuelled by a bit too much wine, I throw some shapes and then decide to shout drinks for some new friends. I’m a great dancer and I’m kind, I modestly think to myself. I feel great about it, even though I don’t know them well, which is in line with the findings of Dr Curry and his colleagues.
“Helping close family made you just as happy as helping distant friends — there was no difference, they were both just as effective,” Curry explains.
Unsurprisingly, Saturday is something of a write off: the only kind act I manage is allowing myself to wallow in exhaustion. On my final day of kind acts, I meet my best friend for a walk. He’s very generous so I insist on buying him a drink. He’s genuinely pleased and that makes me feel warm and happy.
What I learned
I’m not shocked that my kind acts made me feel really good. What actually surprised me was that the study was spot on: whether buying my best mate a drink or leaving a happy note for a stranger to find, I was equally happy afterwards.
The best part of my week-long experiment was being reminded of how easy, effective and rewarding it is to be kind. And it’s accessible to everyone.
“You don't have to donate a kidney. Just start by saying hello to people you see on your commute, make a small donation to charity, write a letter of thanks to your old favourite teacher,” Dr Curry suggests. “Try it, science says you’ll like it!”
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