The Ultimate Happiness Formula (Kindness + Novelty)

In a large hospital setting, a young outpatient stopped me in the corridor the other day and asked if I could tell him how to find the EXIT that led to the parking lot where his car was parked. Without thinking twice I said “Sure, let me walk you there.”

He looked at me like he hadn’t heard correctly. “But you were going in the opposite direction” he remarked, “I don’t want to inconvenience you. You can just point me towards the next corridor and I will try to follow the signs.”

“Come on,” I said, smiling, doing a 180-degree turn. “I could use the extra exercise!”

The young gentleman had a knee injury so we had to walk slowly. “I’m really sorry this is taking up so much of your time,” he said as he carefully coordinated his cane with his steps. “Someone asked me if I wanted a wheelchair, but actually, this exercise is good for me, too.”

By the time we made it through 4 corridors to the EXIT, this brave young veteran had relayed the story of his injury, told me about his new car, the joy he took in being a new Dad and professed he was looking forward to the springtime thaw so he could garden again. When we got to the door I walked him out further to the ramp so he could hold on and make a gradual descent into the parking lot.

“ Gee, I don’t know how to thank you,” he said. “Talking to you really made my day.”

And he was off.

I had never really reflected on how a simple good deed could have such a powerful effect on the person you help. But the truth is, volunteering to help someone else has an even more important effect on the do-er of the kind act.

I knew that various studies in my field of psychology have positively correlated performing kind acts (or what we call “prosocial behaviors”) with enhanced life satisfaction (i.e. happiness). This holds true for all ages. Kindness makes us feel good about ourselves in addition to bettering someone else’s situation. What a win-win!

Back in the 80’s the buzz phrase “random acts of kindness”, implied that whenever it popped into our heads, we should do something kind for someone else. I would like to propose something different: PLANNED acts of kindness; not only because we can’t always depend on our head Muse to give us a hint, but because varying the kinds of good deeds we do has a more lasting impact on our personal happiness.

One study showed that participants who were asked to perform 5 kind acts in one day had a larger increase in happiness than those who performed 5 kind acts over the course of one week.

How could this be?

Adaptation

It is like walking into someone’s kitchen when they are sautéing onions: You are overpowered with the aroma initially, but after a few minutes, you hardly know it is there. That is sensory adaptation, but the same thing happens with other systems of the human body and brain. We adapt to what becomes routine, and it has less of an impact on us.

Enter the powerful effect of NOVELTY (or newness). To the participants who performed the 5 acts of kindness in one day, their actions were new, or novel, therefore the kind acts hadn’t become “old hat” routine, as it had with those who were asked to perform the kind acts every day.

Does this mean that:

  1. We should do kind acts less frequently so they don’t lose their effect?, or
  2. Should we plan to do DIFFERENT kind acts more frequently as a way to achieve long-lasting happiness?

THE ANSWER IS “B”

Let me explain:

Researchers randomly assigned participants ages 18-60 into three groups. They were asked to do one of three things: a) perform kind acts for 10 days; b) perform new (novel) acts for 10 days; or c) perform no acts and just go about their normal business (control group) for ten days. What they found was that BOTH of the experimental groups experienced a significant increase in life satisfaction as compared with the control condition, which did not.

Given that both acts of kindness, AND doing new things can be a ticket to greater happiness, combining these two concepts can be an unbeatable formula for making you—and the world around you—a happier, brighter place.

Here’s how to get started on your own kindness-to-happiness project:

Grab a pencil and paper when you get a few moments and start a KINDNESS list. Jot down as many ways to help someone else as you can think of. No numbers on the list, because you will add to it every day as you come up with additional ways to practice kindness. The acts could be big or small. Try to recall some of the nice things you have done for others in the past, or things other people have done for you, and add those acts to the list. Then glance at this list each day. And get out there and do something kind and new every day to put a smile on someone’s face.

Examples of Kindness Acts:

  • Show (not tell) someone how to get to an exit when they are lost
  • Bring a meal or a tray of fruit to a sick friend
  • Order a friend a book on Amazon that you think they’d love
  • Pay the next car’s bill at the Donut Drive-in
  • Offer your store coupons or coins to the person behind you
  • Send someone the announcement of an event or conference they might like
  • Shovel a older neighbor’s driveway when it snows
  • Help someone on with their coat when you see them struggling
  • Buy a sandwich and give it to the homeless person standing out front
  • Listen, when you see someone needs to talk something out
  • Smile and say GOOD-MORNING, instead of keeping your eyes glued to your smart phone.

In a world where self-preoccupation is commonplace, YOU can be a unique light that shines kindness all around you. And you’ll be a whole lot happier for doing it, too.

Would you share YOUR ideas for acts of kindness with my readers—so we can all add them to our list, too?  I’d love to hear your stories!

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and especially for those of you who “like”, “share” on your social media, and subscribe to my email list. Mille grazie!

References:

Buchanan, K.E., & Bardi, A. (2010). Replications and refinements: Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology 150(3), 235-237

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K.M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology (9) 111-131

©Raeleen Mautner, LLC

How to Be a Mind Reader (And Why You Should)

Ten years ago (give or take) psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence; opening the first chapter with the unforgettable story of a middle-aged black gentleman who drove the Madison Avenue bus through New York City. On this particular sweltering August afternoon; the kind that made most people “sullen with discomfort”, the bus driver greeted each disgruntled-looking passenger with a hearty welcome and enthusiastic smile; even though few passengers returned his greeting. Then, as the bus continued on its journey through the hot city streets, the driver suddenly began to channel his inner tour guide; pointing out the treasures of the city as they rode by; remarking about this wonderful museum exhibit, that terrific restaurant over there, or the flea market of interest down the block. He could tell by looking at the expressions on his customers’ faces, that they could use an uplifting distraction. And he cared enough to be the one to put a smile on their faces.

By the time each passenger came forward to step down from the bus, they made it a point to thank the driver, wish him a wonderful day, and wave him on to his next stop with a smile. Just like that, they were transformed.

Good feelings all around.

Knowing how to engage in positive social interactions (i.e.. no fighting, no arguing, no negative criticisms, or political put-downs if someone didn’t vote the way you did) is a skill that goes beyond the academic IQ test. EQ is a form of intelligence all its own. Emotional intelligence, as Goleman called it, makes us—and others–happier.  It also helps us guard against loneliness—which affects older adults at alarming rates as our pool of friends dwindles, families become estranged, and divorce or widowhood becomes increasingly commonplace.

The ability to empathize with other people and interpret their mental state (needs, desires, motives, feelings and thoughts) is referred to as Theory of Mind or ToM. All positive human interaction depends on this ability to see things from another viewpoint. The bus driver in Dr. Goleman’s story knew that his passengers were not just scowly for the purpose of being unpleasant. They were unpleasant because they were hot, uncomfortable, and had been waiting at the bus stop under a hot summer sun. He didn’t snarl back at them, he felt their pain, and wanted to do something about it.

Unfortunately, research shows that the older we get, we tend to lose some of ability to decode what others are feeling and thinking; which makes us less adept at the kind of interactions we need at a time in our life when we need them most. Various ToM training programs have found to help, but a technique that I hadn’t expected to come across was the 5-minute meditation.

In this study half of the participants were assigned to the control group, whereby for five minutes they were to asked to sit, breathe, notice their thoughts and immerse themselves in them. The other half were in the the mindfulness meditation group where they also sat for 5 minutes, but were instructed to treat their thoughts as fleeting and keep returning their attention to their breathing for the entire 5 minutes.

Then both groups were given two tasks:

  • One task was to decipher various emotional states expressed by photographs of 36 pair of eyes (both male and female).
  • The other task involved watching a video clip involving 3 cartoon figures playing a ball toss game. One figure was excluded by the other two players during the toss game. At the end of that video both groups were asked to write letters to the player that was excluded.

The mindfulness group in both instances outperformed the group that did not engage in the meditation. They were able to mind read emotional states from looking at the photos of eye expressions, and they also expressed more empathy when writing letters to the player that was left out of the toss game.

If you want to maintain or increase your emotional intelligence and have more positive and less abrasive (irritating, emotionally charged, argumentative etc.) interactions with people, try taking a 5 minute mindfulness breathing meditation break before you leave your house or whenever you can throughout the day. It will soften you, make you feel happier, and draw people to your calm and wise demeanor.

Here’s my favorite 5 minute Mindful Meditation Technique:

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of 4 (concentrate only on the counting as you breathe)
  2. Hold the breath for a count of 7
  3. Breather out slowly through pursed lips to a count of 9

Do this practice whenever you need it and watch your demeanor change and the quality of your relationships improve.

Let me know how short mindfulness meditation breaks are changing your life and social interactions.

 

BTW–Thank you so much for “following” my blog (If you haven’t done so yet, please do!) Also, I would love it if you would sign up for my monthly (or less) newsletter.

 

Reference:

Goleman, Daniel (2006) Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam

Tan ,B.G., Lo, B.C., & MaCrae, N. (2014) Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Mental State Attribution and Empathizing.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC