As life dragged on after her best friend Lynda Drabek’s funeral, Charlene Moser took a novel approach to keeping the pain at bay: She carried out small acts of kindness. The good deeds she chose—paying for the drive-thru customer behind her, for instance—were things Lynda, a lifelong altruist, had done. “She would go through her address book, pick someone at random and write a card to them—no occasion, just because,” Moser recalls.
At first, being the Good Samaritan wasn’t easy. Both recipients and intermediaries—the drive-thru cashiers, for instance—were suspicious of her motives. Still, any resistance paled compared to the satisfaction Moser felt when someone smiled or thanked her for her efforts.
Literature, religions and fairy tales all trumpet the message that kindness will change our lives for the better—think of a transformed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. But is this message just a sugar-coated platitude, or can altruism really create lasting satisfaction?
Last year, Stanford University psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky decided to put the kindness-fulfillment connection to the test. She asked students to carry out five weekly “random acts of kindness” of their choice, anything from buying a Big Mac for a homeless person to helping a younger sibling with schoolwork.
Her results indicate the Scrooge effect is no myth. The students reported higher levels of happiness than a control group, with students who performed all five kind acts in one day reaping the biggest rewards by the end of the six-week study period. Previous studies have found that altruistic people tend to be happy, but Lyubomirsky’s was the first to establish that good deeds are actually the direct cause of an increase in well-being.
Why is being generous such a mood-booster? While hard-and-fast answers are elusive, the main reason is that it gives people a strong sense they’re doing something that matters. “There are a lot of positive social consequences to being kind—other people appreciate you, they’re grateful and they might reciprocate,” Lyubomirsky says. All of these responses, she adds, are likely to make your happiness cup run over. In another study, she found that people who felt most strongly that others appreciated their efforts reported the biggest boost.
New Jersey rabbi Shmuel Greenbaum can testify to the ways kind acts reshape the self-image. After his wife, Shoshana, was killed by a suicide bomber in Israel in 2001, Greenbaum decided to respond by carrying out small acts of kindness each day—and gradually felt his anger and apathy dissolve, replaced by a strong sense of purpose. “Being kind helps you feel in control,” Greenbaum says. “By doing a good deed, you’re saying, ‘Here’s something I can do to change the world.’ ” Continue reading