How Kindness Makes You Happier
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I received a phone call the other day from Chase Bank. "This is Jake from the Chase Bank off PCH and Violet Lantern," he said.
I probably said something like, "What?" thinking it was a spam call. There was a time when I never would have answered a random number, but since my job centers on phone communication, I no longer have the luxury of ignoring numbers I don't know.
Jake sighed. "Jake from Chase bank, I'm with our mortgage financing team."
This was news to me, but it seemed irrelevant at best. And, Jake sounded either really sad or really bored.
"I think there's been a mistake," I said, looking around my 250 square foot studio apartment with peeling paint, a broken window, and a dull grey tiled floor. "I'm definitely not looking to buy a house, especially here." Buying a home in Kansas or New Mexico or Arizona might be doable. Buying a home in Orange County, the 14th most expensive county in the entire nation, is a definite no-go at present.
"We've prequalified you for a home loan of up to $778,000," Jake droned. His tone and demeanor were so monotone that I couldn't help but laugh.
"You're not enjoying this are you?" I asked him.
"Nobody's buying houses right now," he said, "It's tough to be excited about selling something nobody wants."
"No joke," I said, "but thanks for calling anyway, I appreciate you reaching out," and we hung up.
I could have hung up on Jake from the get-go, or gotten angry, or been annoyed. I've hung up on plenty of Jake's before. But something about how sad and bored he sounded made it's way through my confusion and annoyance. I call people all day, every day. I know how difficult and uninspiring it can be, and I also appreciate when people aren't total jerks on the phone.
There's a famous quote that goes, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind." It's not attributed to any one specific person, but the truth of it is undeniable. Most of us are doing our best to figure out how to exist. Most of us are trying to do and be good. Being kind isn't just good for other people either, it's good for yourself.
One of my therapists used to instruct me to look outside of myself when I was feeling down or depressed. The more we focus on ourselves and our own problems, the more unhappy we become. Focusing outward gives us something else to think about, and focusing on helping others specifically gives us a renewed focus.
A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that engaging in acts of kindness, no matter how small, makes people feel happier. And the happier we feel, the more likely we are to be kind, creating a positive feedback loop. It might feel good to be grouchy and rude for a moment, but it leads to lower self-esteem and a worse attitude not only about yourself, but about the entire world.
My therapist was right to recommend "getting outside of myself." She knew that focusing on doing kind things for others could bring a host of other benefits, including:
1. Releasing Feel-Good Hormones
Engaging in acts of kindness releases hormones like dopamine and serotonin and creates an endorphin-rush, similar to a runner's high. Being kind literally feels better in your body than being unkind, which can trigger or worsen stress or anxiety, lead to higher blood pressure, increase inflammation, contribute to sleeplessness, etc.
2. Lowering Blood Pressure
Inflammation in the body is linked to plenty of health problems including chronic pain, diabetes, obesity, and migraines. In a study of older adults aged 57-85 engaging in kind acts through volunteering helped to lower inflammation levels, reduce stress, and increase overall happiness. When the people in this study volunteered, their oxytocin levels increased, which releases nitric oxide in blood vessels, lowering blood pressure.
3. Building Interpersonal Connections
Helping others not only takes you out of your own mind but can help to build relationships with other people. According to one study engaging in pro-social behavior might be an effective strategy for reducing the impact of stress on emotional functioning. And of course, helping others helps establish friendships and bonds that boost your happiness and in turn, boost your health.
Maybe you remember the infamous Dairy Queen drive through pay-it-forward chain that happened in Minnesota back in 2020. Over 900 people took part, paying for the people behind them in line. Brightening someone else's day, even in a small way, will brighten your day. Research on kindness shows that people’s wellbeing was boosted most when they helped others spontaneously.
Thanksgiving just happened, and the holidays can be a hard time for people emotionally and financially. Survey respondents from a separate study cited a lack of time, financial pressure, and gatherings as causes for increased depression and/or anxiety. So this holiday season, I'm making an extra effort to be kind to everyone, especially those more likely to be frazzled, like retail workers, food service workers, and first responders.
“Remember, there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” —Scott Adams