She reappeared a few minutes later carrying a brown bag with some food and what I assume was a hot drink. She handed it to the man, and they spoke for a few minutes. Then she walked away.
It was a beautiful act of kindness, unnoticed by most of the world. And most likely the girl won’t say anything about the moment to anyone either.
But it really touched me. I felt uplifted—inspired even.
When I left the coffee shop about an hour or so later, I found myself stopping to hand £10 [about $13 U.S.] to a homeless person. Usually I’d just hand £1 [$1.29] or some change. For the rest of the day I found myself making an extra effort to be helpful to people—family, friends, shop assistants—not just helping them, but giving them my full attention when they spoke and responding in ways that I thought would make them feel good about themselves.
When I went to bed that night, I reflected on the day. Wasn’t it amazing, I thought, how the young girl’s act of kindness towards the homeless man had had a larger effect?
Her kindness had actually caused the other homeless man to receive £10, shop assistants to exchange some smiles and my family and friends to receive help and support. Through one simple act of kindness, she had set in motion a chain of positive events.
This kind of thing happens every day. We just don’t notice it.
Just as a pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples that lift lily pads on the other side, so acts of kindness lift the spirits of people who witness it, and they carry that kindness forward, lifting the spirits of others.
Please think of a specific time when you saw someone demonstrate humanity’s higher or better nature … [where] you saw someone doing something good, honorable, or charitable for someone else [or] please think of a specific time when someone did something really good for you.
These were the instructions given by psychologists Sarah Algoe and Jonathan Haidt to 162 students who participated in a kindness study.
Afterward, the students were asked to describe their physical sensations, motivation and any actions they took. Those who had witnessed kindness reported a warm feeling in the chest and a desire to emulate the kindness they saw. Those who had kindness shown to them felt gratitude and a desire to repay the kindness and were motivated to emulate that kind behavior.
The research seems to show that it is elevation that is the source of kindness ripple effects. Jonathan Haidt describes it in the following way: “Elevation is elicited by acts of moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.”
When we witness kindness, we feel uplifted. We often have warm, expansive sensations in our chest area–in our heart.
“It makes me want to hug the world,” as a friend said.
Indeed, in the next part of their study, Algoe and Haidt asked 114 students to make a note of kindnesses they witnessed over the next three weeks. Afterward, they reported that they wanted to “do something good for another,” “be like the other person” and “be a better person.”
Motivation usually leads to action. Elevation motivates us to be kind so we will follow through with actual kindnesses.
Sometimes we plan them–we think of helping particular people in our lives, and then we act. Sometimes we simply act on opportunities as they present themselves.
One piece of research titled “Elevation leads to altruistic behavior,” examined how elevation actually motivated kindness, one group of volunteers was shown a morally uplifting video clip, and another group was shown a funny clip (for comparison purposes). The uplifting clip was from “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
The volunteers who watched the uplifting clip reported feeling uplifted, optimistic about humanity, warm in the chest and/or happy, as we might have expected.
But the key to the experiment was the next part. Did the effect stop at motivation or did people actually follow through?
The volunteers were asked to help with a different task. Would those who felt elevated after witnessing kindness be more likely to help than those who had merely had a laugh? Indeed they were. Those who had watched the Oprah clip were the ones most likely to help.
And in a separate experiment, the researchers found that those who had experienced elevation after watching the Oprah clip actually spent twice as long helping them with a task as those who had watched the comedy clip.
I’ve found that when I recall witnessing kind acts, or when I think of times when I’ve received help when I really needed it, I feel uplifted. It makes me feel happy sometimes for hours afterwards.
It’s a very useful self-help exercise for improving your mood.
It has to be done on purpose, though. What I mean here is that there’s a difference between the mind drifting toward happy memories and choosing to think of happy memories. The latter is an intervention: You’re intending to feel better, and you’re using the happy memories as a tool to do that. And that makes all the difference.
I’ve noticed that when I do this, I often remember to do kind things that I’d intended to do but just not got around to doing.
I also find that when I practice the loving-kindness meditation I feel more compassionate for a while afterward and also more likely to follow through on helpful things that I hadn’t got around to doing.
Kindness ripples! There’s no question about it. And one of the ways each of us can help the process along is to talk about the kind things we’ve witnessed, done or been on the receiving end of. Set up kindness discussion groups and share your experiences with others. Share videos through social media. The more people who are elevated by witnessing or learning about acts of kindness, the more kindness ripples we create.
Excerpted by permission from The Five Side Effects of Kindness, by David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., published by Hay House (Feb. 2017).
About the Author
David R. Hamilton gained a first-class honors degree in chemistry, specializing in biological and medicinal chemistry and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He has been featured in numerous publications, including Elle, Red Magazine, Psychologies, YOU Magazine, Good Housekeeping and several newspapers, and is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio.