When we see others giving back and being compassionate, we want to do the same.
This past week, I was checking out at the grocery store with my three daughters. I was in “go mode,” as in let’s-check-out-as-fast-as-possible-and-go because my 4-year-old was starting to lose it. While I was juggling the cart, shopping bags and my wallet, my 7-year-old tugged my sleeve and pointed to a basket full of golden Cadbury Eggs (strategically placed at child height).
“Look mommy, the sign says they are free!” A quick glance assured me that they were most definitely not free. “No, sweetie,” I replied hastily, “The sign says buy one, get one free.” She paused and then reasoned, “So, that means you can get two!” I am well practiced at turning down my kids’ entreaties for candy, so I off-handedly quipped that “maybe the Easter bunny would bring them a Cadbury Egg.” I should have known that that would only lead to more questions about how much longer it was until Easter…and then of course, more tears.
Candy from a stranger
As we zoomed out of the grocery store, I heard a woman’s voice calling from behind me. “Ma’am!” I turned around and saw the woman and her daughter who had been standing behind us in line rushing toward us. “For your girls,” the mother said breathlessly, extending out to me a giant chocolate bar. And just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Shocked, I paused for a moment in the parking lot, contemplating what had just happened. Someone had gone out of her way to bring my children an unexpected sliver of happiness!
Humbled and overwhelmed, I got into my car and shared the story with my kids, whose faces of course broke into huge smiles when they saw the chocolate bar. Immediately, they began asking if we could buy chocolate bars for other people, too. This woman’s random act of kindness probably cost one dollar and took less than one minute to complete, but her actions left a deep impression on my family.
Kindness begets more kindness
I often talk about the science behind conscious acts of kindness through my work at GoodThink (a positive psychology consulting firm), but I found it was a powerful experience to be on the receiving end of kindness and in the position to carry that ripple effect forward. Over the past year, I spent quite a bit of time reading source material for my upcoming book, The Future of Happiness, and I became fascinated with the mechanism behind what makes an individual take action on an idea.
It turns out that in almost every case, a person or a specific event functions as a catalyst for decision making, which means that if we see our actions as catalytic events for the positive, we can harness incredible energy and power to impact the world for the better.
In fact, simply observing an act of kindness can set a cascade of generosity into motion and make others significantly more willing to try acts of kindness themselves. In a famous experiment from 1966, researchers studied whether or not other drivers would stop to lend a hand to a “lady in distress” with a flat tire. Half of the drivers passing by had seen a staged setting with a young male helping a girl just beforehand, while the other half of the drivers had not. The study found that the presence of a positive model significantly increased the altruistic behaviors of other drivers, creating a catalytic event that rippled positivity beyond the bounds of the experiment and unconsciously shaped behavior in a powerful way.
A daisy chain of giving
When a customer at the drive-through window of a Tim Hortons coffee shop decided to pick up the tab for the stranger in the car behind her, the customer, surprised and delighted, decided to pay for the following customer as well, resulting in a 226-customer streak of generosity over the next three hours.
This phenomenon was repeated in 2014 when a Starbucks customer’s act of kindness resulted in a 378-customer streak over 11 hours. In each of these cases, a single act of altruism created a powerful ripple effect that extended far beyond the people in line—these stories became an internet sensation and a catalyst for other random acts of kindness in communities across the globe.
What kind of ripple effect can you start in your community?
Next month, you can help Live Happy celebrate the fourth annual International Day of Happiness by participating in #HappyActs, and doing various kindnesses for friends and strangers during the month of March. Go to HappyActs.org to sign up for daily texts, podcasts, videos and articles to prompt your altruism. Maybe you can organize a neighborhood cleanup effort, deliver flowers to a neighbor, or just hold the door for a stranger.
The beauty of #HappyActs is that you do not have to have a lot of time or money or status or even connections—you just have to have a willingness to make someone’s day just a bit brighter and the follow-through to accomplish it. If you need more stories or ideas to help get your creative juices flowing, check out the Nobly app (available for iPhone and Android). Or if you are looking for a daily inspiration, check out Deedtags, an app that challenges users to complete simple daily missions. Tweet your #HappyActs @LiveHappy and they will appear on our tagboard!
Amy Blankson, aka the ‘Happy Tech Girl,’ is on a quest to find strategies to help individuals balance productivity and well-being in the digital era. Amy, with her brother Shawn Achor, co-founded GoodThink, which brings the principles of positive psychology to life and works with organizations such as Google, NASA and the US Army. Her upcoming book is called The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-being in the Digital Era (April 2017).