Happiness Habit #4: Conscious Acts of KindnessAugust 16 , 2012

Do nice things for others.  It’s something we all learned about in kindergarten and something suggested by all the world’s religions.  Most of us assume that it’s for the benefit of others (those we are doing the nice thing for), but here’s the hidden bonus: research shows that acts of kindness are a powerful way to increase our own happiness.

There have been many studies documenting the happiness benefits of doing conscious acts of kindness for others.  Shawn Achor has adapted the benefits of all this research into a simple daily habit that you can use to tap into this happiness source.

How to Do It

For 21 days in a row, before you open your in-box or start on a project, send an email to someone thanking or praising them for something they did.  The email should be a MAXIMUM of two sentences and should take less than two minutes to write.  You can send it to a friend, a family member, a work colleague, an old teacher, anyone you know.   While we often think of giving as something we primarily do in our personal lives, Shawn has tested this habit in professional environments at Fortune 500 companies.  Broaden your view of giving to include every part of your life.

These can be notes about big things like a gift, staying late to finish a project with you or appreciation for a teacher who propelled you in the right direction.  Or they can be about small things — like thanking someone for a smile, holding the door for you, providing a good idea or stepping up when they didn’t have to — which work just as well for this exercise. Try to be as specific as you can.  These emails can be especially powerful when you appreciate something someone does every day, which you might usually over-look.  The key is to scan each day for something positive that someone else has done, and to let them know.

How Conscious Acts of Kindness Help

  • It deepens the amount of social support that the giver feels, and social support is the number one predictor of an individual’s happiness.
  • It trains your brain to scan the world for the good things in your life, the things to appreciate.
  • It changes the social script with those in your network to allow for more positive praise and collaboration.  By using those tools, you encourage others to reciprocate or pass it on, building more positivity into all those around you.  (Think about the “systems” you operate in — your family, your work group — and how much more lovely life within it would be with more appreciation and compliments flowing!)
  • It helps train your brain to see how you can effect change rather than how change affects you.  An increased sense of control in your life is another key to happiness.
  • The notes back from people who are thus appreciated give another big boost to your own happiness hours or even days after the email is sent.

My Experience

While I’ve loved the idea of this habit, I resisted it until a few months ago.  I love to give praise and appreciation in person, but it’s hard for me to do in an email.  If I was going to send an email, I wanted it to be hugely meaningful and I’d labor over every word.  But the two sentence, two minute limit freed me up to just send those good thoughts as they are rather than trying to perfect them.

And what a difference it made!  Just the act of sending something that would be well-received and encouraging was fun.  Thinking of them having a little joy in their inbox, often gave me an immediate boost.   I sent emails to people I interact with all the time and to some to people I hadn’t seen in months or even years.  Many of them sent a note back expressing how much they appreciated the note and it even kicked off some other discussion in several cases.  It was clear how my social network tightened from this simple 2 minute exercise.

It was sometimes hard for me to come up with these on demand each day.  So I created a short list to go from in the back of my day planner (a tip I recommend).  That way, if I couldn’t find one in my short-term memory banks, I had a list to go to.  It also gave me an ongoing repository of the things people did for me as I went through each day.

The Challenge

This week, I challenge you to take on this conscious-acts-of-kindness habit for 21 days.  Make it the first thing you do when you sit down at your computer each day (at work OR at home).  Just two sentences; keep it simple and then see what happens!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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