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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Spreading Happiness - Happiness Habit No. 4

What single thing will bring you the most happiness today?

It could be a much needed cheque arriving in the post. It might be successfully completing a challenging project. Or it may be the simple pleasure of a walk in the park with your dog. But the likelihood is that it will be some kind of communication with another person: appreciation from your boss, a phone call from a friend, being able to cheer up your child, or sharing a moment with your partner.

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy  is to be happy yourself.”
Gretchen Rubin, writer

Every recent study of happiness shows that good relationships are fundamental to being happy and that happy people have better relationships.

Positive emotions are generated by good interactions with other people. During these interactions our brain responds with chemical responses such as the production of “feel good” hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. In an upward spiral, positive emotions then make us feel better disposed towards others, more empathic, helpful, open and loving.

Positive Psychology research has found that altruism is strongly correlated with happiness. Professor Martin Seligman commented on a study that linked happiness with altruism; he was surprised, because he thought that unhappy people would identify with the suffering of others and be more altruistic. But "findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait [altruism]" (Seligman, 2002, p. 43). And likewise, altruism helps people to be happy. Seligman cites a range of evidence to show that there is a causal link between altruism and becoming happier in his book, Authentic Happiness (e.g. pp. 8-9). Jane Piliavin has also analysed studies which have looked at the effects of helping others, and concludes that, "on many levels - psychologically, socially, and even physically - one indeed does 'do well by doing good'" (Piliavin, 2003, p. 243). 

Richard Layard tells us that neuroscientific research shows that when we do kind things for other people the same areas of our brain light up as when we eat chocolate. What a bargain - and it's not even fattening!

"Happiness comes from giving, not getting. If we try hard to bring
happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also.
To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it."
John Templeton, philanthropist (1912 - 2008)

Habit No. 4 of the Happiness Habits Experiment is "Spreading Happiness" and we ask participants to undertake some act of kindness, above and beyond their normal, kind activities, daily for three weeks. Amongst our first tranche of participants, this Habit is only the fourth most popular: coming after "Simply Smile", "Three Good Things" "And Breathe..." - but ahead of "Yes I Can!" and "Fun To-Do Lists". We very much look forward to finding out how effective those who signed up for it, found it.

Whether you have signed up or not to the Happiness Habits Experiment, think of some generous actions which you could realistically carry out each day over the next three weeks. They can be gifts of your time, energy, or effort, and don’t have to cost money; they could be small and impulsive, or they could involve serious input and planning on your part. They can be directed to people you know and love or to someone you find hard to get on with; to contacts or colleagues; to strangers in need or to charitable organisations. They should be actions different to or beyond those kindnesses you already do on a regular basis.

You can do something extra for someone you see every day, or you can reactivate a lapsed friendship by an act of unexpected giving. You can enjoy watching the surprise and pleasure of those you offer your gift to, or you could savour in your imagination the amazement and gratitude of someone you help anonymously.

If you want some ideas for Spreading Happiness, have a look on the Random Acts of Kindness website for inspiration. And there are more Happiness Habits in The Real Secret programme.

Post by Lucy

Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. In C. L. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 227-247). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

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