January 13, 2020
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Performing random acts of kindness can make you happier

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC, Riverside dissects the behaviors that increase happiness, which include performing random acts of kindness.

In her work, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions,” behaviors that increase happiness, such as expressing gratitude or performing random acts of kindness. Photo courtesy of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky

Editor’s note: Kindness is all around us. Even in today’s polarized political climate and sometimes toxic social media landscape, it’s not hard to spot genuine acts of kindness and generosity. That’s why we launched the Kindness Chronicles, a regular series on The Renewal Project that exposes the goodness that we know exists in every neighborhood. Submit your story to us at info@therenewalproject.com or tweet to us @therenewalproj, using the hashtag #kindnesschronicles.

At the Renewal Project we regularly talk with people who make kindness a regular part of their lives, whether it’s through their career or volunteer project. They must be on to something, because research has shown that practicing kindness can have a positive effect on your mood.

We spoke with Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and an expert on human happiness. In her research, she regularly studies “happiness interventions,” or behaviors that increase happiness, such as expressing gratitude, thinking about happy memories, and performing random acts of kindness. For example, in one study she conducted, some students were required to commit five random acts of kindness one day a week, for six weeks, while another group of students did not. The group that performed the acts of kindness had a 42 percent increase in happiness.

You can learn more about Sonja and her work through her website or by following her on Twitter @slyubomirsky. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

When you conducted the six-week kindness experiment, what did the students tend to do? How did they react to doing the study?

Examples of acts of kindness included “I gave a Whopper to a homeless person, I visited my grandma in the hospital, I gave a friend a ride to the airport, I bought someone coffee.” It’s sort of a combination of not too small and not too big.

I’ve done a dozen or more kindness studies and participants in the comments afterwards, they do enjoy being in the studies. This is not surprising because we find it makes people happier when they help others.

What inspired your research into acts of kindness and other happiness interventions?

I’ve been doing research on happiness for 30 years. I started in graduate school. That started serendipitously, my advisor is one of the world’s experts on conflict and negotiation, so that’s nothing to do with happiness, but on my first day of grad school we started talking about “Why are some people happier than others? Isn’t that interesting? What’s the secret of happiness?”

For the first ten years I was studying happy people: What are they like? What do they do? and how are they different from people who are less happy? It was kind of like a window in order to understand what is the secret of happiness. I started doing intervention experiments where we would randomly assign some people to do random acts of kindness, write gratitude letters, or savor the good things in their life, while other people were assigned to control groups. That was the inspiration—to find how happiness can shift over time.

So you’ve done three decades of research on this topic! Has that inspired you to practice kindness in your life or take on other happiness interventions?

It does from time to time. I try to separate my personal feelings and my life from my research because I don’t want it to affect the research.

My first book is called The How of Happiness, and writing that really did affect me, because there you have to immerse yourself in the literature and spend all day, every day writing. I remember when I was writing the kindness chapter, I thought, Oh I should do something nice for my husband today.

As a kindness expert, do you have any advice for regular people looking to make acts of kindness a regular habit and happiness intervention?

A couple of things, one is you have to choose something that fits your personality. The kind of acts of kindness you choose will differ depending on your personality.

Another point is you need to vary what you do because like with anything we can adapt and get used to it and start taking it for granted. Let’s say you love to do random acts of kindness and you put money in people’s parking meters and let people go ahead of you in line. But if you do that every day—it’s still a good thing to do—but you’re gonna stop getting the boost from it.

My last point, be sensitive to your own needs and the other person’s needs. If you’re helping too much, and you’re not really taking care of yourself, you might feel exploited or you might feel like it’s a burden. Maybe the other person wants to do things for themselves. You have to be sensitive to what the other person needs, which is hard because you can’t always guess. It’s good to make things a habit, but if you do things the same way every time you take things for granted.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.