How Random Acts of Kindness — and Lots of Practice — Made Me Happier
A Life-Changing Letter About a Life Saved
Then one day came a letter. It was from a recent high school graduate. He wrote to tell me that his mother had given him a copy of for his graduation, and that he had been planning to kill himself, but the stories in the book made him feel like life was worth living. I was stunned that a book I helped create could have such an effect. He was uplifted just by reading about other folks’ generosity. I knew then that I had to understand much more about the power of these seemingly small actions.
Now that I understood how powerfully actions could affect emotions, I decided to study happy people to find out what other things they did differently than me. The first thing I noticed was that they were more grateful. So I began to practice gratitude, as well as kindness, and lo and behold, I got happier. I went on to look at how to be more generous, patient, and optimistic. All of it helped, but what I found out for me was that counting my blessings on a daily basis was absolutely the best happiness booster. I think it was because I was inherently a worrier, which caused a lot of my anxiety and low feelings. Worry is always about the future, even if it’s just worrying about a test result you will hear about in the next 30 minutes. Gratitude brings us back into this present moment when the bad thing hasn’t happened yet and you’re still okay. I can’t tell you the number of times in a day I would have to practice while I was going through money and relationship struggles. It really helped with moment-to-moment peace of mind.
The Growing Science of Positive Psychology
When I began to write about these positive qualities we can grow in ourselves to feel more joyful, the scientific research was nonexistent. Since then, there has been an explosion of interest in these qualities by members of the positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman. I’ve watched it all with great interest, particularly the gratitude research of David McCullough, Robert Emmons, and David Snowdon. What they and others have discovered confirms all of my amateur armchair philosophizing. One of the most powerful studies came from Seligman’s Reflective Happiness website. After counting their blessings for one week, Seligman's team found, 92 percent of people felt happier and 94 percent who had said they were depressed felt less depressed. That means gratitude is as powerful as antidepressants and therapy. Now I’m not saying to throw away your medication — just be sure to add this easy upper to your routine.
But it isn’t just gratitude that’s been found to have such positive effects, it's all positive emotions, including learned optimism, generosity, and hopefulness. Some of the most impressive research has been done by Barbara Friedrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has demonstrated how a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions can create a life of flourishing.
Being Happy Takes Practice
What’s going on here? All we have so far is a hypothesis, but I believe it is a powerful one. From research done on Buddhist monks’ brains, we are beginning to believe that when we think positive thoughts — about gratitude, kindness, optimism, and the like — we activate our left prefrontal cortex and flood our bodies with feel-good hormones, which give us an upswing in mood in the short run and strengthen our immune system in the long run. Conversely, when we think negative, angry, worried, hopeless, pessimistic thoughts, we activate our right pre-frontal cortex and flood our body with stress hormones, which send us into fight or flight mode, depresses our mood, and suppresses our immune system. In other words, we are bathing our body/minds/spirits in good or bad chemicals based on our thoughts.
This is no quick fix that you try it once and the effects last forever. I still have to consciously practice every single day — to be kind, grateful, hopeful. It still goes against my automatic hardwiring for gloom and doom. But the more I practice, the easier it gets — and the happier I am.
M.J. Ryanis one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling book Random Acts of Kindness, and the author of , , , and , among other books. She works as an executive coach with individuals and teams around the world, and is a workshop leader at Omega, Esalen, and elsewhere.
Photo credit: Sunshine Design Studio
Video: Random Acts of Kindness - Restoring Faith in Humanity #1
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