I don’t know his name, but his messy, shoulder-length hair hides a pair of hauntingly blue eyes. It’s a warm September day in New York, but he’s sitting under a mountain of ragged bits of clothing, towels and blankets. In one hand, he loosely holds a piece of string attached to the neck of the small, mangy-looking dog lying next to him. In the other hand, he clutches a nearly empty bottle of cheap vodka. His bright eyes briefly glance at me without recognition or focus. I don’t know what makes me pause.
My initial thought is to give him money, though I just avoided eye contact with the last 10 people, sputtering that I didn’t have any. And my mom’s words come to mind: “He’ll only spend it on drugs or alcohol.” So I turn to the closest Nathan’s stand and buy him a hot dog, chips and soda.
When I approach him, I feel awkward, my donation insignificant. As if I’m offering a glass of water to a man trapped in a burning building. Is he more of a ketchup or mustard guy? The absurd thought turns my face hot. What comfort will a nutritionally deficient meal with a side of dehydration be to a man who sleeps on cement and spends a life generally invisible to the world?
But when he sees my outstretched hands, he smiles, dropping the bottle and leash to accept the meal with shaky fingers. We don’t exchange any words, but his smile lingers with me.
It’s only the sixth day of my month-long challenge to find the joy in making someone’s day every day and up until now, I had felt like a failure. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but rather questioning whether seemingly small gestures were actually accomplishing my goal. Can I really find joy by giving to those around me? Can random acts of kindness actually increase and sustain happiness?
Turns out they can, but there are exceptions. To find lasting happiness through generosity requires a suppression of our ego, an analysis of our motives and a reflection on how these acts alter our perception of the world.
How performing acts of kindness benefits us
As children, our parents tell us to make up for misbehaving by doing something nice for someone. As adults, we help friends move into a new house, we bring hot meals to new mothers, we might even donate time or money to local charities a few times a year. After all, it’s naturally uncomfortable to see a friend (or stranger) suffering or in need. Call it karma or mojo, but these acts are generally reciprocated. We receive tax breaks, returned meals, favors and thank-you notes. Tit for tat.
But what about pure, altruistic generosity, without the expectation of receiving something in return? I set out to see whether I could learn to give without the promise of getting. I made lists of various acts of kindness and placed reminders on my bathroom mirror, my work computer, my car dashboard: “Make someone’s day today!”
My first act of kindness was buying coffee for the woman behind me in the drive-thru lane at Starbucks. In fact, my first few acts were buying something for someone—lunch for an old friend, a copy of my favorite book for a stranger—but they didn’t make me feel much of anything. The recipients were grateful, but was I really making their day, and was that really boosting my happiness?
At the end of each day, I reflected on how being kind made me feel. I dug for tangible proof of my growth. Some days felt more significant: buying cough syrup for the two coughing boys in pajamas at the pharmacy, for example. Their father, who had dark circles under his eyes, rubbed the bridge of his nose as his credit card was declined a second time. I couldn’t tell whether he was more embarrassed or grateful, but I like to think he slept a little easier that night, and I left the pharmacy feeling pretty good.
It makes us happier.
Multiple studies tout the benefits of giving—and receiving—generosity. A 2022 study published in Emotion looked at prosocial behavior during COVID-19, and how the effects of that behavior might differ based on the action’s connection to COVID-19. As expected, researchers found that “prosocial (vs. non-pro-social or proself) behavior led to higher levels of self-reported positive affect, empathy and social connectedness.” However, they also determined that behaviors unrelated to COVID-19 provided greater benefits. That is, “when prosocial and proself spending involved identical COVID-19 [personal protective equipment] items, prosocial behavior’s benefits were detectable only on empathy and social connectedness, but not on posttask positive affect.”
Admittedly I experienced some form of generosity fatigue around the second week of my challenge. It’s easy to float through the day wrapped up in our own heads, focusing only on what directly impacts us. Consciously searching for new and different ways to improve someone else’s day was more difficult than I anticipated. We just don’t face that challenge often in society. But when I did the nice deed, I nearly always felt a boost of happiness—dubbed a “helper’s high” in the late 1980s, the term was used to describe the euphoric feeling associated with acts of kindness. A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience tied this benefit of generous behavior to oxytocin—an effect that increased with age. Researchers found that the release of oxytocin in response to emotional stimuli increased in older participants, boosting their “satisfaction with life… empathic concern… dispositional gratitude… and religious commitment.”
The ripple effect of acts of kindness
As Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., a Buddhist monk and bestselling author, writes in Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill: “When we are happy, the feeling of self-importance is diminished and we are more open to others.” This explains why we help people, even at a cost to ourselves.
Generosity allows us to forget our own self-importance, even temporarily, and look outward to uplift those around us, who in turn often uplift those around them.
Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained researcher and bestselling author, calls this “the ripple effect.” Our behavior, he discovered, is literally contagious. “Our habits, attitudes and actions spread through a complicated web of connections to infect those around us,” he writes. That’s why we sync up with our best friends, often finishing each other’s sentences and reading each other’s thoughts. It’s also why one negative attitude can spread like a disease across an office and infect everyone’s mood.
So are happier people more generous, or does generosity make us happier? Rather than thinking of it as a cause-and-effect relationship, consider happiness and generosity as intertwining entities.
“Generating and expressing kindness quickly dispels suffering and replaces it with lasting fulfillment,” writes Ricard. “In turn the gradual actualization of genuine happiness allows kindness to develop as the natural reflection of inner joy.” Helping behavior increases positive emotions, which increases our sense of meaning, regulates our physical and emotional reactions to stressors and increases longevity. All of that contributes to a heightened level of happiness, causing us to feel more generous and creating a circle of happiness and generosity.
Why we aren’t generous all the time
I failed twice during my month-long challenge. What began as a positive and energizing morning was quickly derailed—a negative social media post, a complaining text, an overwhelmed coworker. I refocused my thoughts and tried to make this my kind act for the day. What if I can turn this person’s day around? What if I can help him see the positive side of his situation? I listened and nodded with concern, hyper-aware of my facial expressions, eager to exude empathy and understanding. I’m not sure what I exuded, but both of us left feeling worse than before.
Avoiding empathetic burnout
What happened? According to Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, I had confused empathy with compassion, resulting in empathetic distress and burnout. Empathy requires feeling what others feel, “to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain,” according to an article by Bloom. Compassion, on the other hand, involves concern and a desire to help without the need to mirror someone else’s anguish. When we experience empathetic burnout, we often shy away from generosity altogether. Feeling taken advantage of, we retreat inward.
Alternatively, the concept of “universal egoism”—acting in your own best interest—offers explanations for our generosity that are easier to accept than true altruism; that is, a desire to help others without selfish motives. For example, there are multiple situations that can be initially perceived as true altruism. At its core, the kind act is governed by selfish motives. Ben Dean, Ph.D., psychologist and founder and president of MentorCoach® in Maryland, offers three such examples:
- It’s a natural response to feel uncomfortable when we see someone suffering. But rather than help in order to ease their suffering, we help them to ease our own discomfort.
- In an attempt to protect our fragile egos and reputations, we don’t want to be viewed as insensitive, heartless, mean, etc. So we help others even when we might not feel an urge to improve their well-being.
- We perceive there to be some form of personal benefit from the act, either in the short- or long-term.
Knowing your boundaries
The question remains: Is there a truly selfless act of kindness? And does it even matter where our motivations lie? The homeless man in New York still ate a hot meal, and the two little boys at the pharmacy didn’t stay up all night coughing. Isn’t that what matters?
We aren’t consistently generous for a multitude of reasons, but in the traditional corporate setting, the prevailing enemy of generosity is the fear of appearing naïve. (And the possibility of going broke.) After all, isn’t the nice guy the one who finishes last? So we become “Givers” as Adam Grant, Ph.D., details in his bestseller Give and Take. In the modern workplace, we are no longer solely evaluated on our work performance, but rather on how we interact as a cohesive unit and how we contribute to the organization as a whole. In fact, Grant’s research reveals this new business landscape paves the way for Givers to succeed and Takers to be left behind. By helping others, we help ourselves.
The important thing to remember is that Givers—especially those predisposed to putting others’ needs before their own—need to know their boundaries. Grant says it begins with distinguishing generosity from its three other attributes: timidity, availability and empathy.
The right way to be generous
Analyze your motives. To achieve true altruism, Matthieu Ricard says, we must demolish the part of our ego that fuels a sense of pride for acting generously. Ask yourself, Would I be just as happy if someone else performed this act of kindness? “For a true altruist, it’s the result that counts, not the personal satisfaction of having helped,” he writes.
Ditch the golden rule. Craig Dowden, Ph.D., a leadership and organizational excellence coach, says givers often only consider their own wants and needs when helping others. “Ditch the golden rule,” he says. True enough, by the second week, nearly all my kind acts were money related. And as a 20-something with student loans and this new thing called health insurance premiums, money stays top of mind.
Be consistent. Developing a selfless attitude doesn’t happen overnight. At first, we fall back into bad habits that feel like an “undoing” of the kind act itself. I spent 30 minutes editing a friend’s résumé who was unhappy in her current career. Then I spent the next 30 minutes complaining about a family member who momentarily annoyed me. “If we alternate between selfless and harmful behaviors, we ought to expect to get a sharply contrasting blend of joys and suffering,” Ricard writes. To sustain joy through giving, it needs to be consistent action that moves us toward a consistent state of selflessness.
The results of my acts of kindness challenge
At the risk of sounding cliché, my month of generosity did make me happier. Something about waking up and consciously planning to act selflessly lightened my step and made the morning drag easier to bear. Something about a stranger flashing a smile (albeit a confused one) as I handed them a dog-eared copy of my favorite memoir gave me an energy boost that a triple-shot latte never could.
For a precious hour or so every day, the fear, anxiety, stress and doubt of daily life didn’t plague my thoughts. I briefly forgot about myself, and it was intoxicating. Friends responded to my seemingly arbitrary good mood with confused laughs. When did being happy without reason become a cause for concern? I wondered.
Maybe my heart was in the right place when I gave the blue-eyed man a hot meal. But maybe my ego was directing my actions that night in the pharmacy checkout lane. And maybe I avoided generosity toward my close friends and coworkers because it was more difficult. Buying coffee for a stranger is easy, detached and allows for a clean exit. Gently pushing a friend to divulge her source of anxiety after she says “I’m fine” is not. After all, altruism and honest self-reflection take time and practice.
Thirty days of generosity didn’t make me a different person, but I do feel different. I don’t actively look for ways to be generous, but I notice the opportunities anyway. Like the sticky note residue on my bathroom mirror, I can see gentle impressions of my growth where I least expect it: during rush hour, when I give the benefit of the doubt to the woman cutting into my lane; after a long day of work, when I make time for the struggling friend who needs to talk; and, most importantly, in the moments when I forget myself and realize the joy to be found in caring for the people around me.
30 acts of kindness ideas
My month of kindness taught me that generosity doesn’t have to be a big production. Use the examples below or add your own and reflect on how it changes your mood.
- Buy coffee for the person in line behind you.
- Start a conversation with a stranger.
- Make a meal for a friend who’s stressed.
- Donate your time to a local charity.
- Buy a hot meal for a person suffering from homelessness.
- Compliment a stranger.
- Ask someone about their day and actively listen.
- Call up an old friend and reconnect.
- Bring a snack or dessert to share at the office.
- Compliment a friend.
- Write a letter to an extended family member.
- Give a copy of your favorite book to a stranger.
- Leave a handwritten thank-you note for the office cleaning staff.
- Offer to help an overwhelmed friend or co-worker.
- Babysit a friend’s children so they can have alone time or go on a date with their spouse.
- Introduce yourself to a new co-worker and invite them to lunch.
- Sign up to read at a children’s reading hour at the library or local bookstore.
- Put money in a stranger’s parking meter.
- Leave a random uplifting note on someone’s windshield.
- Offer to keep a friend company while they run errands.
- Leave a large tip for no reason.
- Take your supervisor out to lunch and thank them for what they do.
- Call your parents and have them share an old memory that makes them smile.
- Smile at everyone you encounter for a day.
- Reach out to your favorite childhood teacher and thank them for their role in your life.
- Bring coffee or lunch to someone you don’t like. Make an effort to let go of your negative feelings.
- Donate blood.
- Have a conversation with a friend and focus on speaking less. Say, “Tell me more.”
- Make an anonymous donation to a local charity.
- Drop off dessert at your local law enforcement station.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock