Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How You Can Make an Impact in 30 Seconds Without Knowing It

Understanding the power of kindness and how we often underestimate its effect.

Key points

  • Research shows that the person who does a kind act tends to underestimate its positive impact on the recipient.
  • Small acts of kindness, which can take as little as 30 seconds, have a broad-reaching effect and can even impact our autonomic nervous system.
  • By being intentional and taking small actions of a minute or less, we can impact others in positive ways we likely don't realize.
 Debra Carter/Pixabay
Source: Debra Carter/Pixabay

On the day of my mother’s funeral, I remember sitting in the back seat of our car, pulling into the parking lot where the service was going to be held, and seeing two old friends of mine from elementary school walking inside. I was 15 at the time. It had never occurred to me that they would miss school to be there for me. This simple act of support meant more to me than they will ever know.

Fast-forward about 20 or so years to the day my daughter got sent home from school with head lice. My friend showed up at my door unexpectedly and spent hours with me, helping to wash all the sheets and clothing, and keeping me tethered in my then-frantic state. These acts of kindness are indelible in my mind, and their power is immeasurable.

The power of kindness

It turns out that the value of small and random acts of kindness is greatly underestimated by the one doing the kind act, and in fact, the person receiving the kindness is far more positively impacted than the doer imagines. This was explored in a series of research studies reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In one study, participants at an ice-skating rink who were given hot chocolate had the opportunity to give away their cups to a stranger. When asked to rate what they thought the impact of this would be on the recipient, it turned out to be far lower than what the recipient actually reported.

In another study involving some participants receiving cupcakes for being part of the research study, those given the opportunity to give away their cupcakes again far underestimated the positive effect this would have on the recipient. Interestingly, when recipients of the cupcake knew it was coming from a stranger as a random act of kindness, this had a stronger positive impact than those who simply received the cupcake as a thank-you for being part of the study. The researchers suggest that there may be many missed opportunities for kindness that occur because people are undervaluing the positive impact of their behavior.

How 30 seconds can change lives

Recently, my husband came across a tiny paper book he had been given called Split-Second Kindness: Making a Difference When Time is Limited. The author, Susan Keane Baker, has practical suggestions for health care workers, all of which take between 10 seconds and two minutes to make a difference for the patient. For example, from the book:

“One minute: Compliment the patients’ courage, follow-through, willingness to ask questions, etc.”

“Thirty seconds: Please don’t hesitate to call me for anything you need.”

“Ten seconds: To increase the perception of time spent, sit down while you speak with a person who is sitting or lying down.”

It turns out that showing compassion in these ways not only feels good for the patient but can actually improve health outcomes, such as helping patients heal faster. This comes as no surprise to me. I know that I am greatly impacted by small acts of care given by my providers.

When I had to go through a medical procedure that I was anxious about, it made a huge difference to me that my doctor sat down with me, looked me in the eyes with kindness and presence, and said, “Tell me all the questions you have and let me see if I can answer them.” Feeling confident that this doctor cared helped to turn down my fight-or-flight response during and after the procedure. When our autonomic nervous system is in a state of calm, safety, and connection, our bodies can best restore, heal, and repair.

How you can make an impact in 30 seconds

Small expressions of kindness and compassion can make a profound difference in people’s lives, no matter what we do for a living or what our relationship is with that person. And we don’t need large amounts of time to do it. All we need to do is take action.

1. Think about a time you were the recipient of an act of kindness.

It could be something small, such as a stranger saying a kind word to you in the check-out line at a grocery store, or perhaps letting you go in front of them if they noticed you were in a big hurry. Whatever you are thinking about, make this moment as vivid in your mind as possible. Remember what it felt like to receive this kindness.

Notice how this feels in your body now. Be curious about the area around your heart center (center of your chest) and note any openness, warmth, or expansion.

2. Think about one kind thing that you could do for someone else in the next day or so.

It could be simple and small, something that only takes 30 seconds, such as scrawling a kind note to your server on the receipt you sign at the restaurant, buying ice cream for the person behind you in line, or telling one of your employees or co-workers how much you appreciate them. As you think of doing this thing, picture the positivity that the recipient will feel. Now double or triple this, knowing you are likely underestimating its impact.

3. Don’t hold back—have some fun doing an activity of your choice or anything else that presents itself.

As a fun exercise, you might take a few minutes to brainstorm as many things as you can think of that you might do in the course of your week to bring some kindness to someone around you, things that might only take 30 seconds or a minute. Here are a few I came up with: text my neighbor that I have extra room in my recycling bin this week if she has overflow; reach out to someone I know who recently had surgery to see how they are doing; tell my kids how proud of them I am; make a point of offering a heartfelt thank-you to the cashier at the store today; sending a note to the creator of this online course I’m taking, letting them know how well put together it is and how much I’m getting from it.

Don't underestimate the value of these small moments. They may seem minor to you, but you never know how much it boosts someone else and makes a difference in their life.

More from Beth Kurland Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today