It's not exactly a secret that being nice to other people makes us feel nicer about ourselves. We've all heard of karma and the idea that what you give comes back around and so on and so forth. But it would appear that it is now official that actually giving to others is linked to our own happiness.
I've read quite a lot on this from various different places, giving to others is one of the pillars in the science of happiness. So I thought I'd try it for myself. Thing is I've never been stingy with my money or my time in the first place. In fact I've been known to give so much of both to others that I haven't left enough for myself. Where money is concerned, I've always been happy to buy more than my fair share of rounds on a night out, to subsidise people who might otherwise not be able to join in and so on. But if I analyse this giving, it's mostly because I wanted to do whatever it was and needed not to do it solo. Or I wanted to stay out drinking so kept on buying drinks so people would stay with me. Those things might count as being generous but I think smack more of desperation, of having a bit of an addictive personality more than about being nice. I also donate to loads of charities. Alex even commented on this in his wedding speech. I can't watch children in need or comic relief without finishing the evening a good £50 lighter. Which is all great but it's hardly taxing is it signing a direct debit and letting it quietly leave my account every month. My time is a different thing. I'm quite carefree with how I spend that too, lending it out to all and sundry. This is because I'm not very good at saying no and because I really do like to help people and end up feeling guilty if I don't for some reason or other.
So, I decided to start giving to others and doing things for other people for no other reason than that it would make both them and me feel nice. To do it having made a purposeful choice to do it for its sake, not just because I'm weak willed or profligate with my spending.
I started small. I bought a few people at work a coffee apropos of nothing in particular. It made them smile, and that made me smile. I told random people I liked their cardigan, or whatever and bestowed smiles on strangers in the street...its amazing how people react to these things! Then one day I walked past the big issue lady outside M&S in Maidenhead and, out of habit, shook my head at her and walked past. Then I stopped and thought, why not? So I went back and for the first time ever I bought a Big Issue. I have never seen somebody look so thankful as she did, and that made me smile too. I gave my tickets for the Thich Naht Hanh talk away, instead of selling them or letting them go to waste and it was lovely to hear how much the lady who took them enjoyed the evening. And then, having walked past the same guy asking for change near Paddington every single day for the last 6 years, I went into Costa Coffee and loaded £10 onto a gift card for him. Ok so £10 isn't very much, but it's more than he would have had otherwise and at least I know he'll get £10 worth of food and drink. I made out to him that I just had it and would he like it...he would, very much so, he was chuffed. He hasn't asked me to spare any change since, he just tells me to have a good day.
These things have all lifted my spirits and made me nice and smiley. I wouldn't have thought that one good deed would be enough to permanently raise my happiness scores for good, but over time these things must add up and I for one will be making sure I keep at it.
Interestingly though, there is a flip side to this. In the last week I have read two different articles about the other side of helping others. One was about volunteering and said the best volunteer work actually involved the beneficiary of the work in the process in some way...gives them a role to play. Otherwise they can be left feeling more down and a bit redundant. So we need to be careful when offering to help that we're not making the person we're helping feel useless and helpless. I thought this was a good point. The second I read today on my daily MoodScope email and it said this. That, according to a clinical psychologist, the best way to help a friend who is feeling low, is not to help them at all, but to ask THEM to help YOU. Now when you think about it, this makes total sense. Firstly because getting them to help you gives them purpose, gets them active, takes their mind off things, gets them involved...all things we know from psychology to have a positive impact. But also because we've just established that helping other people is one of the pillars of happiness...so if we really want to help people feel happier, we just ask them to help us...and then everybody's happy. It's like some beautiful virtuous circle of help and happiness.
And this is a very important lesson for me, because whist I have always been willing to help everybody else, I am not at all good at asking for help myself. I think I know what my homework for this week is...