A Simple Way to Boost Your Happiness
Small acts of kindness can cheer you up when you are feeling down.
Posted March 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- One of the quickest ways to increase happiness is to engage in acts of kindness, according to research.
- People tend to be happier when they spend money on others, and volunteers tend to have greater life satisfaction as well as lower rates of depression. Studies also show that giving to others activates the reward centers of our brain.
- Some ways to engage in acts of kindness include volunteering, donating to charitable organizations or simply treating others the way a happier person might.
They say misery loves company, but research shows it also creates it. Being around unhappy people makes us unhappy too—if you didn’t know that was true before the pandemic lockdown, you probably know it now.
The good news is that it also works the other way—being around happy people makes us happy. But how do we make sure the people we interact with every day are happy? It’s actually easier than you think.
A Simple Way to Cheer Yourself and Others Up
One of the quickest ways to boost your own happiness, according to science, is to engage in acts of kindness towards others. This fact is something kids seem to get intuitively. Studies conducted in America, China, and the Netherlands have found that young children display greater happiness when they are sharing a tasty treat than when they are receiving the treat.
This doesn’t just work with children: Adults feel happier when they engage in prosocial spending. For instance, one study using a representative sample found that the more people spent on others during a typical month (in the form of gifts and charity donations), the greater their reported happiness. Despite what you might think, how much they spent on themselves in a typical month had no impact on their happiness.
What if you don’t have money to give away? No worries, time is just as effective. Research shows that people feel happier when they freely give away their time in the service of others. For example, an examination of over 17 longitudinal studies using over 74,000 participants found volunteers had significantly greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression than non-volunteers. This pattern has been replicated in over 130 countries and occurs regardless of whether those countries are rich or poor.
So why does giving to others boost our happiness? There are lots of psychological theories out there, but the reason might be more basic. Neuroimaging studies have found that giving charitable donations activates the reward centers of our brain, suggesting our brains are wired to serve.
Incorporating Acts of Kindness Into Your Life
If you are able to volunteer and/or donate to a charitable organization, that’s great. Do it. But this might be too much of a commitment for some. No worries, there are lots of ways to incorporate smaller acts of kindness in your daily routine—here’s an example from my own life.
Full disclosure here: I’m not someone who is big on small talk. It probably stems from my scientific training, but when someone is telling me something, I generally want them to get to the “main point” of the story quickly without all the (what I perceive to be) unnecessary details. So when I’m chatting on the phone with friends or family members and they start to drag on, I often find myself getting frustrated. Don’t they understand I have things to do? Don’t they understand they are stealing 30 minutes of my busy day to rattle on about things that don’t matter?
Not only would I feel irritated during the conversation, but this negative mood would linger for hours afterward. In an attempt to be more mindful of my negative emotions, I recently decided that whenever I would answer a call from a friend or family member, I would essentially “give” them my 30 minutes and allow them to talk about whatever they wanted with no judgement. Doing so meant I had no expectations of what they should or shouldn’t discuss and as a result, I no longer felt frustrated. Even better, I ended the call feeling good that I helped out a loved one by providing a listening ear and didn’t stew for hours afterward. Ironically, by giving away my time, I got time back.
The underlying idea is if you treat others the way a happier person might, you will end up being a happier person yourself. To try out this technique, think about your typical day and identify one re-occurring instance where you tend to get irritated or resentful towards another person—it could be a spouse, family member, friend or co-worker. Now instead ask yourself, “If I was a happier person, how might I act toward this person.” How would a happier person greet them at the start of the day? How would a happier person respond to their text or email? What nice thing would a happier person do for them to show them they care?
Next, institute the change with no expectation of what you might get in return. Remember, you are freely giving away yourself here—it is a gift, not a quid pro quo. Do this repeatedly and you will see that, when it comes to happiness, if you give a little, you get a little.
For more science-backed tips on how to boost happiness, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project or the Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness.