With all due respect to karma, a lifetime’s an awfully long time to wait to have your best intentions rewarded with a shiny gold star. Luckily, you don’t have to wait: The benefits of charity and compassion are powerful and immediate. You’ve seen it on the bus, when someone offers his or her seat to an elderly person: The generous person feels noble, the elderly person beams with gratitude, and even spectators feel like cheering inside just from having witnessed a simple act of kindness. As it turns out, the effects of those experiences aren’t just psychological. Those who study the science of do-gooding have discovered that performing (or even just imagining performing) a good deed has major physiological benefits - for the giver, not just the recipient.
Naturally, we don’t behave in benevolent ways to benefit from our actions… but just between us, the side effects are awesome.
Chemist Dr David Hamilton left a career developing cardiac and cancer drugs to do research that led to studying the health benefits of kindness and happiness. Hamilton says that performing a kind act releases oxytocin - the same brain chemical that surges when you hold your baby or snuggle a dog - which also temporarily lowers blood pressure. “Kindness is literally good for your heart,” explains Hamilton.
Nearly a hundred years ago, aviator Amelia Earhart observed, “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” Her inspiring words were borne out by the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine years later that showed how a single altruistic kidney donation set off a domino effect, resulting in 10 successive transplants.
Perhaps because tough economic times bring out our neighbourly compassion - or because it’s an idea that never went away - suddenly kindness feels like it’s all around us and more important than ever. Right now, there’s a man performing an act of kindness every day, and blogging about it, to set a good example for his daughter - sometimes it’s as simple as scrubbing the house from top to bottom, which made his wife break down in tears. There’s a woman who rings strangers’ doorbells and leaves sunflowers on their stoops; she also scrawls first-day-of-school sidewalk messages that say, “Don’t be shy, we’re all new friends!” And there are coffee shops where ordinary customers regularly hand over $100 bills with instructions that the cash be used to pay for other customers’ coffee until the money runs out. Look closely and you’ll see the generosity of everyday people everywhere. All we have to do to change our own lives is pass it on.
- If you are in a long line, invite the person behind you to go first.
- Bring courtesy back in an instant: Hold the door open with a flourish.
- Buy a local family movie tickets or a season pass to the community pool.
- Shower the paediatric wing of a hospital with colouring books and boxes of new crayons.
- Drop off combs, toothbrushes, and toothpaste at a shelter or a soup kitchen.
- Leave your neighbours a note that tells them how much joy you find in admiring their garden.
- Put sticky notes with positive messages (e.g., “You look fabulous!”) on a public bathroom mirror.
- Pick up rubbish at a local park or a playground.
- Donate your old professional clothes to an organisation, like Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org), that helps women jumpstart their careers - and up their confidence.
- Carry someone’s groceries.
- Check “yes” when asked if you wish to become an organ donor - and tell your family.
- Lay your neighbours’ mail at their front door along with a plate of blueberry muffins
- Leave a bouquet at the hospital - the nurses will know who needs it the most
- Arrange to pay anonymously for someone’s breakfast when you see them dining alone.
- Share happy memories. Stick an old photo in the mail to a friend and write a note about the day it was taken on the back.
- Forgive someone. Repeat as necessary.
- Resolve to refrain from negative self-talk (you deserve your kindness, too!).
- Take your neighbour’s garbage bin out on bin day.
- Relay an overheard compliment.
- Load your spare change into a vending machine to buy the next person something.
- Leave a copy of a book you love, with a note for the next reader, on the train or the bus.
- Volunteer to read to kids at an afterschool program.
- Treat an elderly neighbour, with a gift certificate, to a pedicure. Bonus points if you can do so anonymously.
- Rescue a wallflower! Strike up a conversation with someone who’s standing alone at a party.
- Leave extra umbrellas in vestibules with notes that say “Use this to stay dry!”