Friday, August 14, 2009

Happiness Tip: Practice Random Acts of Kindness

by Marelisa on July 1, 2009

boost your brain power

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” – Stephen Grellet

In “The Healing Power of Doing Good”, Allan Luks reports that there’s a phenomenon called the helper’s high, which is described as a feeling of warmth and increased energy, as well as a feeling of euphoria, that people feel when they’re being kind to others. In addition, a 2005 study from Hebrew University in Israel found a link between kindness and the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. (Source).

I’ve started putting together my own happiness project –which I’ll tell you more about in a future post–based on Gretchen’s suggestion from “The Happiness Project”. Research shows that people can increase their level of happiness by helping and being kind to others, and it’s definitely one of the elements that’s going into my happiness project.

Below you’ll find more information, based on scientific research, on how being kind to others has a strong positive impact on your happiness, as well as some ideas to get you started down the path toward altruism.

Why Good Things Happen to Good People

Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has the following to say about helping others:

“All the great spiritual traditions and the field of positive psychology are emphatic on this point — that the best way to get rid of bitterness, anger, rage, jealousy [and so on] is to do unto others in a positive way.”

He adds that there are studies that show that when people act with generosity and compassion, there’s a positive effect on their health and well-being. (Source).

Post, who co-authored the book “Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving” with Jill Neimark, adds that evolution may have primed us to feel good from giving, because groups that had a large number of people who were altruistic toward others were more likely to survive than groups that did not. Also, depression, anxiety, and stress involve a high degree of focus on the self; when we focus on the needs of others our thinking literally shifts.(Source).

Our Brains Are Hard-Wired for Altruism

A study was conducted a couple of years ago in which students from the University of British Columbia were given an amount of money ranging between $5.00 and $20.00 and were told how to spend it. Those who spent it on others, whether giving the money to a charity or buying a gift for someone else, were subjetively happier at the end of the day than students who spent the money on themselves.

In another study, researchers scanned the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves. The results showed that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Altruism, these two experiments suggest, is not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges, but rather is basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.(Source).

Take the Challenge – Perform Five Acts of Kindness One Day a Week

Ben Dean, Ph.D., writes in an article entitled “Kindness and the Case for Altruism”, that he took a challenge posed by Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the leaders in the field of positive psychology and the author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, to perform five acts of kindness one day a week.

Dean reports that the practice not only increases his level of happiness, but it also changes the way he spends the entire day because he’s constantly on the lookout for ways to be kind.

Consider taking Sonja’s challenge: start performing five acts of kindness one day a week.

30 Random Acts of Kindness

Here are 30 ideas to help get you started:

1. Plant flowers in a public, neglected corner.

2. Pick up a piece of trash you notice as you walk along the street.

3. The next time an employee at a store does his or her job enthusiastically and with care, make sure that you let their supervisor know; we’re often quick to complain if someone doesn’t do their job well but fail to offer recognition when someone goes out of their way to do a good job.

4. Leave the exact change for a chocolate bar, or other treat, in the change slot of a vending machine.

5. Pay the toll for the car behind you.

6. Put money in someone else’s parking meter if their time is about to expire.

7. Forgive someone a debt that they owe you if it becomes obvious that they can’t pay it. Ask only that they do the same for someone else in the future when their circumstances change.

8. Let someone who appears to be in a hurry cut ahead of you in line at the grocery store.

9. Give someone an honest compliment.

10. Leave a great book at a café for someone else to find once you’re finished reading it.

11. Offer a couple of hours of babysitting to busy parents.

12. Give another driver your parking spot (yes, I know, this one’s really hard, save it for a day when you want to be extra kind :-) ).

13. Leave an extra big tip for your waiter. Write a note on the back of the bill thanking them for their service.

14. Drop off a big box of doughnuts at the fire or police station.

15. Get all of Dr. Seuss’s books and leave them in the children’s section at the hospital.

16. When drivers try to merge into your lane, let them in, wave, and smile.

17. Send a letter to your favorite teacher-whether from grade school, high school, or college-thanking them for helping you become the person you are now.

18. Leave a bouquet of flowers on your neighbor’s front steps anonymously.

19. If someone new moves to your neighborhood, stop by and welcome them.

20. Leave a dollar bill on the ground for someone else to find.

21. Keep an extra umbrella in your car and give it to the next person you see stuck in a downpour.

22. Donate your frequent flier miles to someone who has family far away that they can’t afford to visit (I don’t actually know if this is allowed, but if it isn’t, it should be).

23. Hold the door open for someone carrying packages.

24. Give up your seat on the subway or train to someone who looks tired.

25. Buy a homeless person lunch.

26. The next time a friend looks frazzled and overwhelmed ask them: “What can I do to help?”

27. The next time someone admires something of yours, if you can afford it, give it away.

28. If a friend is going on vacation offer to feed their pets and water their plants.

29. Sometimes people just need a sympathetic ear: listen to someone who feels like they’re not being heard.

30. Look for specific ways in which others need help and do what you can to help them.

Please add your own suggestions for random acts of kindness in the comments section. In addition, you can find more ideas for random acts of kindness in the following three books:

Editor’s Note: This post contains affiliate links.

true happiness
Image by *Zara

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” - James Openheim

Advice on how to be happy used to be the purview of self-help gurus. However, over the past few years scientists and psychologists have begun to give serious study to the subject of happiness. Although they’ve discovered that about 50% of happiness is determined by a person’s genes, and another 8 to 10% by life’s circumstances–such as income, health, and marital status–, the remaining 40% is up for grabs. In addition, scientists have found several ways to create true happiness, six of which are explained below.

1. Find Meaning

The concept eudaimonia” is a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy which means striving toward excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of “Positive Psychology”—a new branch of psychology that studies what makes people feel fulfilled, engaged, and happy—argues that in order to create lasting happiness we should figure out our strengths and find ways to direct them toward achieving meaningful goals. In addition, Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that the positive emotions that accompany thoughts of having purpose in our lives is one of the most enduring components of well-being.

2. Increase Daily Pleasures

By analyzing your life in this way you can make changes to tip joy in your favor. David Schkade, a psychologist and professor of management at the University of California San Diego, explains that if you transfer even an hour of your day from an activity you dislike, such as commuting or doing housework, to an activity that you enjoy, such as taking a walk, spending time with friends, and so on, you should see a significant improvement in your overall level of happiness.

3. Seek Flow Experiences

“Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state that is reached when you’re so completely absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time. That is, nothing else seems to matter: the person is totally unaware of their surroundings, and they’re enjoying the task and having fun engaging in it.

This complete immersion in an experience can occur under many different scenarios, such as when you’re singing in the church choir, dancing, playing bridge, reading a good book, writing, or while closing an important business deal. The flow state can be achieved by knowing what your strengths are, re-crafting your life to use these strengths as much as you possibly can, and becoming fully engaged in what you’re doing.

4. Cultivate a State of Mind Conducive to Happiness

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches a course at Harvard University on “Positive Psychology” which, at its height, was the university’s most popular offering. One of the tips he offers is to keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind. That is, barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined on what we focus on and on how we choose to interpret events.

In addition, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, co-authors of the book “How We Choose to Be Happy”, found that happiness is not the result of economic or social circumstances, but, rather, how each one of us chooses to react to those circumstances. Practices such as focusing on the bright-side, asking yourself “what can I learn from this?” when something goes wrong, and noticing what’s right, can all help in creating the frame of mind that is conducive to happiness.

5. Practice Acts of Kindness

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want”, explains that being kind to others—whether friends or strangers—triggers a cascade of positive feelings: it makes you feel compassionate and capable and gives you a greater sense of connection with others, both of which are happiness boosters.

Furthermore, an experiment on more than 630 Americans carried out by a team at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School found that the test subjects were measurably happier when they spent money on others. In fact, participants who were assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves. The study also suggests that minor alterations in spending allocations—even as little as $5.00—may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day.

6. Stop thinking “if only . . .”

Thinking that your life would improve dramatically if you got the promotion, won the lottery, got married, and so on, creates dissatisfaction with the present moment and is erroneous thinking on two accounts: first, we tend to overestimate the impact of events in our lives, and second, happiness levels tend to level off due to “hedonistic adaptation.”

Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, explains that people are very poor at predicting how happy they’ll be under different circumstances. For example, most people think that if they made more money they would be a lot happier. However, while there is a big difference in the level of happiness between having no money and having your basic needs met, studies show that the increase in happiness between making $50,000.00 and $500,000.00 is not incredibly significant. At some point, you just stop getting happier from money.

In addition, “hedonic adaptation” is the brain’s natural dimming effect. A new car won’t generate the same amount of pleasure a month after you’ve bought it than it did when it was brand new. You can become very happy when something novel occurs—such as starting a new relationship—but this feeling of happiness ebbs as you get used to the new situation. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, try counting your blessings.


Pleasure is an important component of life, and decreasing the number of displeasing activities that you undertake, as well as increasing the activities that give you pleasure, will increase your happiness level. However, pleasure does not in and of itself provide happiness. By making your life more meaningful, becoming more engaged in what you do, giving and doing for others, counting your blessings, and focusing on what’s good in a given situation, your life will become progressively happier.

Written by Marelisa Fabrega who blogs at

12 Superb Ways to Be Happier

by Marelisa

(”Enjoy”; courtesy of Sator Arepo)

1. Forget the myth that happiness is elusive and unattainable, and that it’s something that either happens or it doesn’t. Being happy is a choice.

2. Expand your understanding of health to include happiness. Here’s a quote from Deepak Chopra, one of the world’s foremost experts on the mind-body connection:

“Health is not just the absence of disease. It’s an inner joyfulness that should be ours all the time – a state of positive well-being.”

3. The term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was first expressed by the King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and it’s rooted in the Buddhist notion that the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness. Wangchuck maintains that economic growth does not necessarily lead to contentment, so instead of merely focusing on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), he focuses on the four pillars of GNH: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s culture, and good governance in the form of a democracy. Follow Bhutan’s lead: instead of simply calculating your net worth, start calculating your net happiness.

4. Living in the moment, which we aim to achieve through the practice of mindfulness, has been shown to be linked to positive emotions and physical well-being.

5. Research shows that meditation stimulates the left anterior temporal region of the brain, which is active during sensations of happiness and positive emotion.

6. Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia (population 7 million), sought to create a city of joy–in terms of transportation and urban design–that supported social interaction and equity, and that honored the sacredness of people and the environment. During his tenure he created urban infrastructure and public space that gave priority to children and to those who don’t own an automobile. Here is a quote from Peñalosa:

“We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and we planted trees. All our everyday efforts have one objective: happiness.”

Organize your space around the concept of creating happiness.

7. Let go of idea that happiness equals consumption. Positive psychology is affirming that once we meet our basic needs, the experience of authentic happiness has much more to do with intrinsic factors such as self acceptance, meaning, empathy and love.

8. Act in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible. You may take great pleasure in drinking your morning coffee, and this pleasure can be accompanied by feelings of satisfaction and happiness. However, if you’re not drinking fair trade coffee, that happiness is not sustainable.

9. Dan Baker, a clinical psychologist whose practice draws on the science of happiness, writes that the greatest barrier to individual happiness is fear. He concludes that all of our fear can be grouped into three basic fears:

1) Survival;
2) Fear of not Having Enough, and;
3) Fear of not Being Enough.

He explains that as long as we are operating out of fear, rather than love, we will consistently pursue happiness in ways that are destructive for ourselves and others.

10. In the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, McDonough and Braungart pose the following question; “What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?” Ask yourself how you can apply this concept in your life.

11. Encourage your city’s major to adopt the “Slow City Manifesto”. In his book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré explores the benefits of slowing down and describes the Slow City movement in his first chapter. He explains that many Italian cities have taken the Slow City pledge and are working to improve the quality of life of their citizens:

“The Citta Slow manifesto contains fifty-five pledges, such as cutting noise and traffic, increasing green spaces and pedestrian zones; backing local farmers and the shops, markets and restaurants that sell their produce; promoting technology that protects the environment; preserving local aesthetic and culinary traditions; and fostering a spirit of hospitality and neighbourliness.”

12. Call the “Laughter Yoga Hotline” and participate in a laughter yoga session in the privacy of your home (it’s free, but you may have to pay a long distance fee depending on your phone service plan).

Editor’s Note: This post is my contribution to the “Life Balance Group Writing Project” hosted by Stacey from

How to Be Happy

by Marelisa on August 6, 2008 · 42 comments

how to be happyRelax. Don’t take yourself too

seriously. Happiness is largely a

choice. Feel gratitude for all of

the good in your life. Smile.

Once you have enough to pay for

life’s basics think to yourself: “I’ve won.” Happiness is contagious: find

someone who is happy and stand close to them. Play. Create. Happiness

is attainable. Slow down and enjoy the scenery. Be spontaneous.

Happiness is perched on your windowsill, invite it in. Success is not the

key to happiness; happiness is the key to success. Surround yourself with

positive, life-affirming people. Make others happy. Have big dreams.

Enjoy the journey. Grab every single morsel of happiness which comes

your way. Be on the look out for moments of pleasure and wonder. Take

care of your body. Be happy right here, right now, while working

towards a better tomorrow. Forget about the Joneses. Forgive. Do for

others. Become absorbed in activities that cause you to enter the

“flow” state: that state where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and

stop worrying. Develop the habit of positive self-talk. Plant a beautiful

garden. Getsunlight and fresh air. Engage your mind in a puzzle:

jigsaw puzzles, sudokus, or crossword puzzles. Listen to music. Make

music. Quiet your mind chatter. Meditate. Practice yoga, tai chi, or

Qigong. Get a box of six Guatemalan worry dolls: before going to bed, tell

one worry to each doll and put them under your pillow; while you sleep,

the dolls will take your troubles away. Make smart money choices.

View difficulties as challenges to be overcome. Remember that it’s not a

good story if there aren’t any dragons. Get involved in a cause that’s

important to you. Have a cat or a dog; pet them often. Perform

random acts of kindness, anonymous or not. Surround yourself with

pleasant smells: jasmine, lavender, sandalwood . . . Put things in

perspective. Go for a brisk walk. Stretch. Go to a museum. Find a hobby

you love. Engage in pleasurable activities.

how to be happySpend discretionary income on

experiences, such as dining out

and travel, instead of purchasing

goods. Count your blessings.

Resolve to have a bad memory:

release the past. Be yourself,

however strange and weird that may be. Ask yourself: what can I do to

become happier? Read a good book. Climb on a tire swing. Be part of

something bigger than yourself. Embrace change. Simplify. Think big in

the long run, but think small in the short run. Remember the following

line from the film “American Beauty”: “. . . it’s hard to stay mad when

there’s so much beauty in the world.” Get rid of things that make

you unhappy. Make happiness a priority in your life. Do something

hedonistic: think afternoon at a spa or going out dancing. Be curious.

Engage in novel activities. Take on new skills. Learn new things. Think

back to when you’ve been happiest: what were you doing? Create

satisfying, meaningful connections with other people. Practice deep

breathing. Savor small authentic moments that bring you contentment.

Happiness is a state of mind. Have a small pleasure to look forward to

every day: coffee out on the patio, going through a favorite magazine,

visiting a beloved friend, baking cookies . . . Search for the sacred in the

ordinary. Do a cartwheel when nobody’s looking. Take George Eliot’s

declaration to heart: “It is never too late to be what you might have

been.” Laugh often. Ask for what you want. Hang a hammock; lie in it.

Find work you love. Let go of fear. Have courage. One of the greatest

gifts you can give to your loved ones is to let them see you living a happy

life. When you’re happy you give others permission to be happy as well.

Love. Entertain hope. Cope with difficult situations with ingenuity.

Spend time contemplating nature. Accept that sometimes you’ll be sad,

that’s just part of life. Make happiness the ultimate goal in your life. Fake

it until you make it: act happy. Create a serene environment. Resolve

to be a little bit happier today than you were yesterday. Tilt your head

back and let out a raucous peal of laughter . . .

(”The Earth is God’s Canvas” photograph is courtesy of Catch the dream)
(”The Pursuit of Happiness” photograph is courtesy of jonSpot)