The discomfort and joy of Random Acts of Kindness

April 6, 2020

You don't need science or Mr. Rogers to tell you that being kind is the right thing to do. But science leaves no stone unturned, and a plethora of recent articles from prestigious institutions, validate Mr. Rogers' advice. 

 

Giving, the headlines promise, improves wellbeing.

 

"Duh." I thought, a reaction similar to learning that science had endorsed a good night's sleep.

 

I figured I had the kindness thing covered. On further introspection, however, I noticed that my service to others followed my mood, aka I gave when I was happy. 

 

These new studies were asking me to flip the equation: give to be happy.  

 

Tangible giving delivers a sizable neurochemical "hit," literally shifting the way blood bathes the brain, but only if the act of giving makes you uncomfortable.  

 

Aside from feeling good, it increases optimism, creativity and intelligence and alleviates loneliness, depression, and anxiety. 

 

There is one crucial caveat: like exercise, the act of kindness must make you feel uncomfortable for it to work. Opening a door for someone every day is sweet, but if you want a real high, you need to play it bigger.

 

I was ambitious until my coach informed me that my task was to write anonymous appreciation notes to three complete strangers, including small sums of money or gifts, every day for a month. 

 

My internal resistance was overwhelming, paralyzing me from actually leaving my first note until the second week. Thoughts like "people will think I am weird if they find out" and "they won't appreciate my gifts" taunted me endlessly. I even envisioned losing my job, my boss regarding me incredulously. "What were you thinking?” as she handed me my pink slip.

 

My coach cheerily pointed out that these mental obstacles met the criteria for discomfort, boding well for the success of the practice. How perfect.  

 

The yoga studio was an easy pick, that was until I found myself alone in the locker room, 15 yoga bags resolutely giving me the evil eye. 

 

On the mirror hung a flyer warning members to lock up their belongings as a thief had recently stolen from the premises. Her picture, captured by the security camera of a local liquor store, served as a stern warning of my inevitable fate. I pictured my wanted poster hung next to hers, except mine was stamped "weirdo" in big block letters.  

 

I hastily placed the note in a bag just as its owner stepped out of the bathroom. I froze, the heat of shame climbing up the back of my neck and into my face, as she impassively read the note and shoved it back into her bag before rushing out to the studio.  

 

To my horror, she and her friend had set themselves up near my mat. I strained to catch their conversation, adding the indignity of eavesdropping to a humiliation I hadn't felt since my kindergarten teacher publicly retrieved a rotten milk carton out of my desk which I had been too ashamed to throw out. 

 

She was weirdly animated in her speech. "I just can't believe this day! What an amazing sign that the universe is a sweet place. I mean, who gets love notes with cash in them? I am so lucky!" Her neighbor was incredulous but happy for her.

 

I lay there, trying unsuccessfully not to smile. It was my luck that was changing.

 

Random acts of kindness change the mindset from self absorption to desire for others to be happy, by engaging pro-social neural networks. 

 

"Give what you would like to receive" became my motto. I printed out jokes and poems from the internet and stuffed them into employee lockers, in patients' waiting rooms and left bouquets of flowers on cars at the grocery store. I savored the addictive mixture of generosity, serendipity and not wanting to get caught. It was easy to abstain from take out lunches and fancy coffees to afford this high. 

 

My favorite drop was on an ambulance windshield, where I left two notes (paramedics travel in pairs) with enough cash for breakfast. This quickly erased the self-indulgent pity I habitually feel at the end of a late shift at the hospital.

 

​​Later that month, my daughter's high school closed unexpectedly for COVID-19, and with it, the promise of senior week, prom, and graduation. As we lingered over breakfast, I offered my stationery kit to her group of friends as they tried to make sense of their new world.

 

Although skeptical, their reluctance could be measured in minutes, not days. They poured all their sweetness into the cards, losing themselves in their beautifully decorated and authentic notes. With each card, their self-absorbed uncertainty diminished.

 

As we left the last letter on a minivan outside the children's museum, her friend skipped back to us, squealing, "This is so weird but I feel so happy!". 

Improved neurochemistry in action more compelling than any prestigious institutional study!

 

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