Helping others is one of the best routes to happiness, according to many psychologists. Lucy Mangan tests the theory.
It’s genuinely hard work being kind in London. One the Tube I make a few false starts — notably offering my seat to two perfectly fit but undeniably older people (on different journeys), who are mortally offended and decline, loudly. I want to shout, “It’s a mark of respect for your age, not of pity for your decrepitude”, but of course, I — kindly — refrain.
A second attempt at helping doesn’t go too well either. “Can I give you a hand?” I ask a harrassed mother who is trying to drag as many toddlers as she has shopping bags into the train. “Yes,” she snaps ungraciously. “Catch him.” I grab hold of an escaping toddler who first sinks his tiny teeth into my hand and then starts to cry. I almost join him.
My luck (or maybe my rusty benevolence skills) starts to improve and my day of trying to discern the advantages of being kind to others begins to bear fruit. People start to look surprised rather than suspicious when I hold open doors, help carry luggage up steps or find them an unbashed tin among an oddly battered lot in the soup section at the supermarket. A few of them smile, say thank you and, occasionally, they even engage in a spot of chat. My mood perceptibly and inexorably improves.
I’ve started to experience what Allen Luks in The Healing Power of Doing Good (iUniverse) calls the helper’s high — that warm glow that comes from knowing you’ve made someone’s day just a little bit better. According to evolutionary biologists, this happy high comes because co-operation is a good survival strategy. Even if our conscious minds don’t know this, over millions of years our bodies have evolved this reward mechanism to make sure we practice just enough good, small deeds to keep us alive.
As I hold open yet another door for yet another pregnant woman, I reflect on the possibility that the recession might have its upside. Charities are reporting leaps in volunteer applications and people such as Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford University who pledged last year to give up 10 per cent of his annual income to good causes for life, seem to be emblematic of a burgeoning recognition that doing things for others is more fulfilling than getting our hands on the new It bag.
So this kindness stuff is double good then, making both parties to the social transaction feel better. Of course, if your kindness stocks are not to be rapidly depleted, it’s best if the recipient acknowledges your efforts. Which is why, if another pregnant woman doesn’t say thank you, I shall let the door swing back in her face without a second thought. Baby steps, people, baby steps.
13 November is World Kindness Day.
~ “PSYCHOLOGIES” (UK), November 2010.