Wellness Tries: Kindness

Holly Tries

Happiness Hack: Acts of Kindness

Each quarter, our wellness team tries and reviews a popular wellness trend. This quarter, we're trying happiness hacks, and Holly is trying kindness.

Headshot of Holly at the Garden of Hope next to a picture of her fishing.

Happiness Hacks

“Wellness Tries” is a quarterly series where the GatorCare wellness team tries out and reviews different wellness trends, so you can see what might work for you! This quarter, we’re testing out various “happiness hacks” from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness. In Lyubomirsky’s book, she claims that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics, 10% is determined by our circumstances, and 40% is determined by our thoughts and actions. The happiness hacks. These strategies are research-supported methods to increase happiness levels to help us max out that 40% we can control.

Our team chose this project back in January when life looked very different. Most of us started our hacks before the pandemic hit hard and continued our experiments into our current shelter-at-home situation. While the implementation changed quite a bit over the course of our hacks, we all agreed that the focus on increasing our happiness could not have come at a better time.

This week, Holly explores acts of kindness and how practicing kindness towards others can increase your happiness.

Kindness and Happiness

What exactly does kindness have to do with happiness? Chances are you have done something kind in your lifetime. Whether intentional or unintentional, whether you wanted to or you didn’t. Have you ever felt that feeling afterward? The feeling that you did something good, that moment of joy that makes you feel like a good person.

For centuries, philosophers, theorists, and spiritual leaders have claimed that compassion and kindness are crucial elements in achieving happiness. The Dalai Lama once said “If you want to be happy, practice compassion” and a Hindu proverb says “True happiness consists in making others happy.” Theorists suggest that if you do something kind for someone else, not only does the person receiving the kindness feel good, but the person performing the kind act feels good as well.

The next time you do something kind for someone, I challenge you to reflect on that feeling. Be mindful of that feeling. Think about why you feel that way. What it feels like or what sensations it gives you. Does it feel warm? Does it feel tingly? Does it give you goosebumps? Hold on to that feeling in your mind for a moment.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky put her team to work to scientifically test these theories. Over a six week period, results showed that performing three to five small acts of kindness all on one day each week improved happiness scores, while those who performed three to five small acts over the course of the week showed no improvements in their happiness scores. Lyubomirsky theorizes that the second group showed no happiness boost because the small, spread out acts became masked and indistinguishable from their everyday kind behavior they perform out of habit. With this study concluded, Lyubomirsky notes that timing and doing more than your “usual” is the key to successfully improving happiness through acts of kindness. After reading about this study, I was immediately immersed and wanted to try this experiment out for myself. I doubted the results. I hypothesized that if I did kind acts five days of the week I would definitely feel happier than if I did one bigger act of kindness once a week. I thought that the more I did, the more lives I touched and the more people I would help – how would I not be happier doing more, right? If I did one big act once a week, I would affect fewer people, granted it would probably have a bigger impact on that person, but I felt I would get more joy from quantity over quality. My plan was to complete two weeks doing five acts a week and two weeks performing one big act a week. Here is how it went down.

The Plan

Lyubomirsky instructed her groups to make a list of kindness activities they would want to engage in during this study – acts they wouldn’t normally do like hold the door for someone, let a person merge in traffic, hold the elevator for someone, etc. I started here too. This part turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated. There are an overwhelming amount of sites available with ideas and many different categories for acts of kindness. This is where I decided to narrow my plan down to mainly strangers – an area outside of my comfort zone that I felt I would get the greatest satisfaction. I eventually created this list:

  • Buy a friend coffee or lunch
  • Pay for a stranger’s order
  • Compliment a stranger (or two)
  • Leave a couple of quarters in a vending machine
  • Give out “Thank yous” often
  • Smile at strangers – intentionally
  • Make someone laugh
  • Leave reviews for businesses
  • Bring treats in for coworkers
  • Give a hot meal to someone I don’t know
  • Leave positive messages for people to find

For my big acts, I was stumped; I had no idea what I wanted to do for those. I was hoping after the two weeks of small acts that I would be inspired by something else or that the moment would arise and I would act on it – I was hopeful!

The Kindness

Week 1

The plan did not go as intended. When I started this experiment, COVID-19 was emerging rapidly. During this first week, social distancing was becoming the norm and it felt awkward to reach out to strangers; it seemed like no one wanted to engage with others out of fear. I complimented others at a distance, left four quarters in the vending machine coin return, I let a person with fewer items than me cut in line at the grocery store, and told the mail carrier ‘thank you’ for his hard work. These activities were spread out over multiple days and easy to perform safely at a distance that no one felt their health was jeopardized.

At the end of this week, unfortunately restaurants were closed down for eat-in service. My husband and I happened to be the last customers at a restaurant and I left a generous tip for the server with a note explaining the reasoning behind it – knowing this would be his last tip for an uncertain amount of time, we wanted to make it worthwhile. This ended up being one of my big acts of kindness – as you see, not following with the plan, but taking the opportunity as it arose.

Week 2

This week was a bit harder as COVID-19 was rapidly changing policies and procedures everywhere. Working from home became my new normal and I wasn’t seeing strangers (or anyone) as often as I would have liked to be able to carry out my kindness plan. I began to feel overwhelmed by the burden of having to plan out and perform kind acts five days a week when I wasn’t able to interact with people. I attempted virtual acts of kindness this week to see how they would affect my happiness. I left a nice review for a couple different businesses (that I had been putting off), bought something from a small business, sent a friend some cash through an app to get coffee, and commented on social media posts (I usually never comment and only ‘like’ on social media).

Week 3

With our everyday life changing daily and a newfound creativity for kind acts, my determination for performing acts of kindness to strangers was growing. I adapted to the latest recommendations as lines began to form outside businesses and everyone was in a frenzy to make face masks. I didn’t follow the plan this week, instead I embraced the opportunities to be kind as they arose. This included allowing others to go before me in line and giving my own antibacterial wipes away to others to sanitize their carts. I also began constructing face masks to give away to those in need as the CDC urged people to start wearing face masks.

Week 4

For my final week I was planning on performing just one large act of kindness – finish the experiment with something following the plan. I became inspired for this act when I saw a lady give a homeless man what appeared to be a box of gloves. I was so moved, that I went home and put together a small care package for this man. The package included a small bottle of hand sanitizer, one of the face masks I made, a couple bottles of water and a snack – not much, but enough to hopefully make a difference in this man’s life. When I gave it to him, he was very humbled and grateful for the gesture. I’m not sure what his reaction to the contents were; I drove off before he opened the package.

Bonus Week

Since my plans were changed on more than one occasion and my fellow nurses and other healthcare staff are fighting on the frontlines during this difficult and uncertain time, I bought dinner for the nightshift staff of a unit at the hospital. They have been so graciously and selflessly taking care of the sick while many others are fortunate enough to work from the comfort of their homes.

The Results

Abiding to the plan I originally created for this experiment was made difficult by COVID-19. Every day was different than the last, and interacting with strangers amidst a pandemic was probably not the brightest idea. However, I enjoyed the challenge of adapting and learning to be more flexible throughout this activity and the creativity that emerged as a result.

At the end of week three, I repeated the happiness scale and noted a very small bump in my happiness score. This could be due to the fact that I did a large act in week one in addition to the smaller acts. Although I did see a small bump in my score, I do believe it is important to note that I was feeling the stress and burden of making sure I met my goal each week of three to five small acts of kindness. I feel like over time, this stress would increase and could potentially have a negative impact on my happiness score. I feel like having a plan could be useful for some people, but when I wasn’t able to follow my plan or meet my goals, I felt bad about myself and had the opposite feeling than what this experiment was supposed to yield.

At the end of week five, I noted a bit higher bump in my happiness score. It was only about a half point higher than my last score, and about three quarters of a point higher than my original score. I believe the reason this score isn’t much higher is because the length of my experiment. I did feel a lot of joy immediately after each of these two last major acts of kindness. Over time the joy seems to fade, however I still reflect on how I felt at that moment and how the recipients truly appreciated the good deed, and I can’t help but smile. These acts are those I will remember and cherish for a long time.

I am very grateful for this opportunity and if there is anything I learned from it, it would be that everyone is different. Everyone perceives happiness differently. Whether you need to make a plan and stick to it in order to implement your acts of kindness or you like the spontaneity of embracing the opportunity as it arises, practice kindness in your own unique way. It is all trial and error until you find what works for you. Just remember to not overwhelm yourself by committing to too many acts and don’t be afraid to throw some variety in to spice things up.

I challenge you to give this happiness hack a try for a week or two. What will you do for someone else?