Your Happiness Project: Don’t perform random acts of kindness.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One piece of advice that I often see, for building happiness, is to “practice random acts of kindness.” I don’t quite agree with this advice.

Now, it’s true that studies show that if you commit a random act of kindness, YOU will feel good. What’s considered a “random act of kindness”? Giving a flower to a stranger, paying the toll for the car behind you, or putting coins in someone’s meter are typical examples.

Doing something thoughtful for someone else does make you feel good. Do good, feel good.

However, if the reason for your happiness is that you’re thinking about how happy you’re going to make someone else (which is, after all, one of the best ways to make yourself happy, that’s the Second Splendid Truth, Part A), you might be misguided.

Another study shows that many people reacted to receiving a random act of kindness with –- suspicion! (See also Larsen and Prizmic’s “Regulation of Emotional Well-Being” in The Science of Subjective Well-Being.) This certainly rings true for me. If someone randomly does something kind for me, I’m on guard. I don’t think that shows a fundamental cynicism or a deep distrust of mankind; it just shows that I think that most people act purposefully, and if I don’t understand the purpose, I question their motives. It’s not the kindness of the act that’s the problem; it’s the randomness.

We don’t expect people to act randomly. A person might feel suspicious when you hand him a flower, for example, because he might think you’re trying to invoke the very strong psychological phenomenon of “reciprocation”: when someone gives you something or does something for you, you feel you must reciprocate. That’s why members of the Hare Krishna Society gave flowers to passers-by in airports. That’s why charities send those complimentary address labels when they ask you for money. (For a fascinating discussion of reciprocation, read the brilliant book by Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion .)

Also, the problem with randomness is that your act might not be well-placed. You might be paying the toll for a millionaire, or filling the expired meter for someone who is standing beside you on the sidewalk, digging for her keys.

It’s nice to be nice, of course. It’s not BAD to practice random acts of kindness. But if you want to build your happiness based on the happiness you bring to other people – the noblest ways of boosting happiness – I think it’s more productive to be targeted. Hold the door open for a person pushing a stroller. Give your seat at Starbucks to an elderly person. Help a co-worker even when you’re rushing to meet a deadline yourself.

After all, seeing that a stranger, friend, or colleague is acting out of concern for you is cheering; wondering why someone inexplicably did something for you, however nice, is a bit unnerving.

Maybe some people are attracted to acting randomly because it allows them to be more secretive about their good deeds; some people believe that the fact that you get “credit” for a worthy act somehow minimizes its worth, and along the same lines, some people argue that you can never act with true altruism, because performing good acts bring the pleasure of happiness. My view: all the better!

The fact is, the sight of someone performing a generous or kind act always makes me feel happy. Especially if it’s me! The spectacle of virtue inspires the feeling of elevation—one of the most delicate pleasures that the world offers. As Simone Weil observed, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” That’s true no matter who is performing that real good.

So perform acts of kindness. Randomly, but even better, not randomly.

How about you? What has been your experience with random acts of kindness — whether on the receiving or the giving end?

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I always find thought-provoking material on Jonathan Fields’s blog Awake at the Wheel.

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Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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  • BlueGumMensShed

    Do a Random Act of Kindness and see who you can make feel better today.