How can you help strengthen the social fabric of your community?
The drive-through lane of a Tim Hortons might not be the first thought that comes to mind when considering this question. In many ways, the drive-through culture prevalent in North America is the very symbol of a hurried, disconnected society. Yet, on a December morning in Winnipeg in 2012, a customer at Tim’s decided to “pay it forward” by paying for the order of the next vehicle in the drive-through. This simple act created a wave of kindness that lasted for three hours and included 228 orders in all.
When people benefit from kindness, they will often do what these Tim’s customers did and pay it forward. In fact, third parties who merely witness an act of kindness are often inspired to be kind to others. This ripple effect can help to strengthen a community by increasing the sense of connectedness and well-being amongst its citizens. What is more, kindness is self-perpetuating since happy people are more inclined to perform kind acts. This leads to a virtuous circle where acts of kindness make people happier and, in turn, happier people perform more kind acts.
Being kind to people we know is an easy sell. Acts of kindness help to improve relationships by strengthening the bond between two people. This benefits the giver and the recipient since both get to enjoy the fruits of a stronger relationship.
But why would you want to make the effort to do a kind deed for someone you don’t know? When you’re in the midst of a busy day or preoccupied with your own worries, it can be a tall order to do something kind for a complete stranger. Even for the best of us, altruism is not always instinctive.
To explore this question, I challenged myself to perform a daily random act of kindness for one month. My only rule was that each act must be different. To help brainstorm ideas, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation provides an extensive list of kind acts, as well as other resources and information.
It turns out that performing a kind act benefits the giver, even if he or she doesn’t know the recipient. Acts of kindness make you happier by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. Known as “helper’s high,” this feeling of exhilaration increases your energy levels and boosts your sense of well-being. Want to test this out for yourself? Next time you are walking along a city street, try putting some coins in a stranger’s expired parking meter. The feeling of goodwill is palpable.
Unlike more materialistic mood enhancers, like buying a new outfit or going on vacation, kindness doesn’t have to break the bank. This month, I spent approximately $270 on my random acts of kindness, or just under $10 per day. A small price to pay for increased happiness. (You don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy the benefits of kindness. More than half of my random acts of kindness were free.)
Being kind to others not only makes you happier in the moment, but it also improves your health and promotes longevity. Studies show that regular acts of kindness can help to reduce blood pressure, lower the risk of heart disease, reduce excessive stomach acid, and relieve pain. It also enhances your sense of connectedness with others, which can help to decrease feelings of loneliness and depression.
Kindness is like a Boomerang
Kindness is like a boomerang. When people benefit from kindness, they will often do something nice in return. For one of my random acts of kindness this month, I asked my fellow apartment dwellers to sign a card to thank our postman for all his hard work. In return, we received a heartfelt thank-you note in our common area. It was a simple, unexpected gesture and it made my day. Hopefully, his kind words provided a pick-me-up for my neighbours too. It’s an example of how one small kind act can create a boomerang effect that impacts others beyond the original recipient.
Getting acknowledged for an act of kindness feels good. However, if you expect to get praised every time you do something nice, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. One lesson I learned this month is to not expect anything in return. For one of my random acts of kindness I left some used books in my apartment building’s lobby with a note for my neighbours to help themselves. At least one person took up my offer. The next day, one of the books was gone. However, there was also a note from someone asking for the “clutter” to be removed. Feeling rejected by this rebuke, I ended up donating the remaining books to charity. Apparently, one person’s good intentions can be another’s source of contempt. Don’t take it personally. By keeping expectations low, you can avoid feeling disappointed if your kind deeds go unnoticed. As a bonus, the acknowledgements you do receive will pack a bigger punch.
Performing regular acts of kindness has the wonderful effect of opening your eyes to the kindness of others. One day this month, my random act of kindness was to smile at ten strangers. It was a grey, rainy day and I had to give myself a little pep talk to go out and greet the world with a smile. As I was leaving my apartment building, the first person I ran into on the sidewalk flashed a big, warm smile at me. Their kind gesture gave me an immediate jolt of energy, which carried me through the day. I don’t think I would have appreciated that uplifting smile as much if I wasn’t in tune with my own acts of kindness all month.
To get the most out of kindness, don’t feel you need to perform epic world-saving acts or commit substantial time out of your day. In fact, small and frequent acts of kindness lead to the highest levels of well-being. The key is to make these kind acts a regular part of your routine. The benefits to your mind and body provide a powerful incentive to stick with this routine every day.
Take the Challenge
Want to try this challenge for yourself? Here are some suggestions:
- Create the challenge – set the parameters for your challenge. You can adapt the challenge to reflect your personal interests and constraints. For example, if your budget is tight, try doing all your random acts of kindness for free.
- Brainstorm ideas – start by brainstorming a list of possible acts of kindness. This gives you a chance to be creative and think outside the box. To help brainstorm ideas, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation provides an extensive list of kind acts, as well as other resources and information.
- Perform kind acts in the morning – performing a random act of kindness first thing in the morning gives you an immediate boost, which can carry you through the day. It’s a good pick-me-up to start your day.
- Track your progress – record your acts of kindness each day in a journal or simple spreadsheet. Keeping track of your kind deeds is fun and feels good. In fact, happiness increases simply by counting your own acts of kindness. My advice is to record your acts of kindness at the end of the day, which will give you another boost of happiness to end your day.
- Spread kindness through all your networks – perform random acts of kindness in all your networks (social, educational, occupational, religious, recreational, or other groups). Spreading kindness through all your networks will help to strengthen the bonds and relationships in all areas of your life.
- Be kind to strangers – the true testament to the power of human kindness is to do something nice for a complete stranger. Make sure that some of your kind acts are aimed at people you don’t know and may never see again.
- Stick with it – after the month is up, make random acts of kindness a regular part of your daily routine. Remember, small and frequent acts of kindness lead to the highest levels of happiness.