Happiness Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

Happiness Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

Half wrong. It is true that studies show that if you commit a random act of kindness, you’ll feel happier. What’s considered a “random act of kindness”? Giving a flower to a stranger, paying the toll for the car behind you, or putting coins in someone’s meter are typical examples.

Doing something thoughtful for someone else is a surefire way to make yourself happier. Do good, feel good.

However, probably the reason you feel happier is that you’re imagining that you’re making someone else happy (that’s the Second Splendid Truth, Part A) – and that’s not as true as you might think. A study shows that many people reacted to receiving a random act of kindness with –- suspicion! (See also Larsen and Prizmic’s “Regulation of Emotional Well-Being” in The Science of Subjective Well-Being.)

This certainly rings true for me. If someone randomly does something kind for me, I’m on guard. It’s not that I have a profound distrust for mankind, it’s just that I’m uneasy if I don’t understand why someone behaves in an unusual way. It’s not the kindness of the act that’s the problem; it’s the randomness.

We don’t expect people to act randomly. A person might feel suspicious when you hand him a flower, for example, because he might think you’re trying to invoke the very strong psychological phenomenon of “reciprocation”: when someone gives you something or does something for you, you feel you must reciprocate. That’s why members of the Hare Krishna Society gave flowers to passers-by in airports. That’s why charities send those complimentary address labels when they ask you for money. (For a fascinating discussion of reciprocation, read the brilliant book by Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.)

It’s always nice to be nice, of course. It’s not bad to practice random acts of kindness. But if you want to build your happiness based on the happiness you bring to other people – the noblest ways of boosting happiness – it’s more productive to be targeted. Help a co-worker even when you’re rushing to meet a deadline yourself. Go out of your way to help an overwhelmed parent juggling toddlers and grocery bags. Putting money in someone’s meter is just such an unexpected action that there’s a good chance that it won’t be understood correctly.

Maybe some people are attracted to acting randomly because it allows them to be more secretive about their good deeds; some people believe that the fact that you get “credit” for a worthy act somehow minimizes its worth, and along the same lines, some people argue that you can never act with true altruism, because performing good acts brings the pleasure of happiness. My view: all the better!

The fact is, the sight of someone performing a generous or kind act always makes me feel happy. Especially if it’s me! The spectacle of virtue inspires the feeling of elevation — one of the most delicate pleasures that the world offers. As Simone Weil observed, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” That’s true no matter who is performing that real good.

So perform acts of kindness. Randomly, but even better, not randomly.

How about you? What has been your experience with random acts of kindness — whether on the receiving or the giving end?

* I always like checking out the many fascinating writers on the Psychology Today blogs.

* I’m on Twitter.

Happiness Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. On Friday, I wrote about Myth No 5: A “Treat” Will Cheer You Up.

Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

Well, money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of things that contribute mightily to happiness.

As the current financial downturn is making vividly clear, money contributes to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of it brings much more unhappiness than possessing it brings happiness. (Good health is the same way – it’s easy to take money or health for granted until you don’t have it anymore.) People’s biggest worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores. Spent right, money can go a long way to relieving these problems.

Also, if spent wisely, money can help you boost your happiness. For example, philosophers and scientists agree that having strong ties to other people is the KEY to happiness, and money can pay for a plane ticket to visit your sister, a babysitter for a date night with your sweetheart, or pizza and beer for a Super Bowl Party with friends. Novelty and challenge will make you happier, and money can pay for a trip to France, for a drawing class, for a mountain bike.

Is money essential for developing strong ties to other people or finding ways to challenge yourself? Of course not. But money can make it easier. Some of the best things in life aren’t free.

Whether rich or poor, people make choices about how they spend money, and those choices can boost happiness or undermine happiness. It’s a mistake to assume that money will affect everyone the same way. No statistical average can say how a particular individual would be affected by money—depending on that individual’s circumstances and temperament. Three factors shape the significance of money for you:

* It depends on what kind of person you are. You might want to own a horse, or you might want to own a turtle. You might have six children and ailing, dependent parents, or you might have no children and robust parents. You might love to travel or you might prefer to putter around the house.

* It depends on how you spend your money. Some purchases are more likely to contribute to your happiness than others. You might buy cocaine, or you might buy fresh produce. You might splurge on a big-screen TV, or you might splurge by going to a more convenient gym.

* It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. One person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune.

The current economic climate underscores that third aspect of the money/happiness relationship: our happiness is affected by whether we have more or less than we used to have.

My First Splendid Truth holds that “To think about happiness, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” We’re made happier by the feeling that we are learning, growing, seeing change for the better. This applies to the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional parts of our lives – and also, for most people, the financial part.

Feeling like we have less than we did – unless that’s the result of a conscious decision – can be a happiness challenge. In one striking study, people were asked whether they’d rather have a job that paid $30,000 in year one, $40,000 in year two, and $50,000 in year three, or a job that paid $60,000, then $50,000 then $40,000. In general, people preferred the first option, with its raises—despite the fact that at the end of the three years, they would have earned only $120,000 instead of $150,000.

Their decision might seem irrational, but in fact, the people who chose the first option understood the importance of growth to happiness. People are very sensitive to relative changes in their condition, for better or worse. (Sidenote: some people feel like they have more with less, so they get a feeling of growth by simplifying their lives.)

If you feel like you’re worse off now than you were two years ago, that’s an unhappy feeling. Some quick ways to make yourself feel better: count your blessings; distract yourself with something fun or interesting; find ways to assert control over your situation (even to do something as small as to clean out a closet); spend time with friends; or do something to help someone else – you can sign up to be an organ donor right this minute. You’ll feel great!

What do you think? How do you think of the relationship between money and happiness? Important, unimportant? I think this is one of the most complex and fascinating subtopics within the subject of happiness.

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I love a good manifesto, and here’s a great one on Scobleizer.

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If you haven’t seen my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short, you might enjoy it.

Happiness Myth No. 5: A “Treat” Will Cheer You Up.

On Fridays, I usually propose a resolution for you to consider for your own happiness project, but I’m breaking the pattern to post for two weeks about “happiness myths.” Yesterday I wrote about Myth #4: You’ll Be Happier If You Insist on “The Best.”

Hapiness Myth No. 5: A “Treat” Will Cheer You Up. Often, not!

It depends on what you choose. Treating yourself to a long walk in the park, say, is a good idea – but the things we choose as “treats” frequently aren’t good for us. When you’re feeling blue or overwhelmed, it’s tempting to try to pick yourself up by indulging in a guilty pleasure, but unfortunately, the pleasure lasts a minute, and then feelings of guilt, loss of control, and other negative consequences just deepen the blues.

So when you find yourself thinking, “I’ll feel better after I have a few glasses of wine…some ice cream…just one cigarette…a new pair of jeans,” ask yourself – will it REALLY make you feel better? Or is it likely to make you feel worse, in the long run?

For example, I realized that one of my personal “treats” is the decision not to pick up after myself. Instead of trying to tidy as I go, as I usually do, I let small tasks mount up. “I can’t possibly be expected to hang up my coat, or put the newspapers in the recycling bin, or unload the dishwasher,” I tell myself. “I’m too busy/too frazzled/too upset/too rushed. I deserve a break.”

The problem is that, in the end, the mess makes me feel worse. Maybe I enjoy a tiny buzz from flinging my coat onto the floor, but the disorder just makes my bad mood deepen. (Plus it’s not nice for anyone else, either.) On the other hand, serene, orderly surroundings make me feel better. Outer order brings inner calm.

Now, instead of “treating” myself to a mess, I make a special effort to keep things tidy when I’m feeling low. Same with my other guilty pleasures, like skipping going to the gym, eating fake food, not picking up phone messages…although skipping a little duty feels like a “treat” for a minute, actually, I cheer myself up more by doing the things I know I ought to do.

The warning signs: whenever I tell myself things like, “I deserve this,” “I need this,” or “Today I shouldn’t have to stick to my usual resolutions,” that’s a signal that I’m trying to justify a pernicious “treat.”

How about you? Do you ever “treat” yourself to things that, in the end, just make you feel worse? Or have you found good treats, that actually make you feel better?

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I love watching interviews of interesting people, and I was thrilled to discover Obsessed, a new, sophisticated site that features interviews with fascinating guests (e.g., Lisa Stone, Mark Bittman, Peter Greenberg) in conversation with host Samantha Ettus.

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Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Happiness Myth No. 4: You’ll Be Happier If You Insist on “The Best.”

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Happiness Myth No. 3: Venting anger relieves it.

Happiness Myth No. 4: You’ll Be Happier If You Insist on “The Best.”

Maybe not. As Barry Schwartz explains in his fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, there are two types of decision makers. Satisficers (yes, satisficers) make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.

Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. They find the research process exhausting, yet can’t let themselves settle for anything but the best.

As a shopper, my mother is a good example of a “happy limited maximizer.” In some categories, she’s a maximizer, and she loves the very process of investigating every possibility. When my daughters were flower-girls in my sister’s wedding, my mother would have loved nothing more than to examine every possible dress, just for the fun of it. In other categories, however, she’s a satisficer.

I’m a satisficer, and I often felt guilty about not doing more research before making decisions. In law school, one friend interviewed with fifty law firms before she decided where she wanted to go as a summer associate; I think I interviewed with six. We ended up at the same firm. Once I learned to call myself a “satisficer,” I felt more satisfied with my approach to decision-making; instead of feeling lazy and unconscientious, I could call myself prudent.

It’s one of the Secrets of Adulthood: Most decisions don’t require extensive research. In some situations, the happier course is to know when good enough is good enough, and not to worry about making the perfect choice.

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I’m on Twitter.