Literature and pop music abound with lessons on the inability to buy love or happiness, and many proverbs, philosophies, and motivational posters offer advice to achieving a lasting happiness. But is there truly a source of happiness? While there may be no key to unlocking your happiness potential, new studies find that one aspect of human behavior can actually lead to increased happiness and contentment. It turns out that finding happiness may be as simple as performing acts of unselfish kindness.
Recently, Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia set out to discover the implications of kindness on behavior and mood. The study focused primarily on the effects that performing acts of kindness had on socially anxious people. The subjects of the test who were required to engage in pro-social tasks for the benefit of others saw a reduction in their reluctance to avoid social situations. Having a role to play in a social setting helps to offset feelings of possible rejection and temporary levels of anxiety and distress. Performing acts of kindness was seen to help socially-anxious people have more positive interactions with other people, and this increased the likelihood of repeat social engagements, much more quickly than seen in study participants who were exposed to social interactions without engaging in good deeds.
A component of this experience is that helping others gives a sense of empowerment and control by the giver, but researchers have noted that for true happiness to be felt, the motivation behind the acts must be unselfish. Setting out to do a good deed to make yourself feel happier is not the most effective way to achieve happiness. And as the study says, humans are hard wired to value the happiness of others, and seeing happiness in others can increase personal happiness. It is what gives us pleasure when we watch loved ones open gifts on holidays and birthdays.
Another factor is that doing nice or helpful things for other people can keep you busy. We recognize that this is a reason many retirees begin to volunteer for organizations. By keeping busy, people feel useful, which can help prevent some cases of depression, especially among the elderly. Sometimes having all the necessary comforts isn’t enough; feeling productive can improve the quality of the life you live. This is true for people of all ages.
Furthermore, there is a likely link between helping others and countering negative social expectations, according to researcher Jennifer Trew. Acts of kindness promote more positive perceptions and expectations of a person’s social environment. Basically, by being kind, you also see the world as a kinder, more friendly, and better place.
This might be the ideal experiment to actually try at home: consider engaging in some kind of act of kindness daily, or even weekly. Not for its therapeutic value, but to watch as gratitude spreads and happiness is shared. This can be as simple as driving someone to an appointment, helping out with a carpool, cooking a meal for a friend, or helping with the dishes. At the very least, you would be productive; however, the potential advantages are as limitless as happiness itself.
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