The do-gooder’s mantra is helping others (see: the Golden Rule). Brightening someone’s day is one reason to lend a helping hand, but it turns out the person who shows some kindness may feel better, too. People tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives when they act caringActs of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. Buchanan, KE, Bardi, A. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2010 May-Jun;150(3):235-7. University of Kent. No major commitments required, though: Spending just a few minutes a day helping others can contribute to happiness for months down the road.

Be Selfish, Help Others — The Takeaway

Photo by Marissa Angell

In one study, participants acted compassionately towards someone— for just 5 to 15 minutes a day— for one week. Six months later, those who’d taken the quick kindness breaks reported feeling happier and having higher self-esteem than the group who didn’t. And showing kindness has benefits in the short-term, too. People in another study who performed acts of kindness felt more satisfied with their lives after just 10 days than people who went about their normal routinesActs of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. Buchanan, KE, Bardi, A. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2010 May-Jun;150(3):235-7. University of Kent. So tell a pal her new ‘do looks great, and she won’t be the only one smiling for days or even months.

It turns out there might be a neurobiological link between altruism and happiness. When people think about a situation in which they donate money to charity, a part of the brain normally activated in response to food or sex lights upHuman fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Moll, J, Krueger, F, Zahn, R, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2006 Oct 17;103(42):15623-8. Epub 2006 Oct 9. Cognitive Neuroscience Section, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. And we’re all starring in a real-life version of “Pay It Forward,” since the psychological benefits of kindness go beyond the individual person. For these cats, it’s all about “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”— but studies show people who experience kindness are more likely to help another, unfamiliar person later on.

Another way to reap the benefits of kindness is by simply counting kind deeds. Held the door open for someone or cheered up a friend? Add that to the tally. One study shows that keeping track of one’s own kind acts for a week can increase happinessHappy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindnesses intervention. Otake, K, Shimai, S, Tanaka-Matsumi, J, et al. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2006 Sep;7(3):361-375. Department of Pyschology. Tohoku Gakuin University. Start the day on the right foot by offering someone a seat on the subway or bringing in some breakfast treats for coworkers.

A quick caveat: there is such a thing as too much kindness. While being kind and helping others when possible is great, adding too much to an already full plate can lead to burnout and other negative feelings. For example, while people who volunteer usually feel better than people who don’t, happiness benefits can taper off when volunteers spend more than a moderate amount of time lending a helping handVolunteering and psychological well-being among young-old adults: how much is too much? Windsor, TD, Antsey, KJ, Rodgers, B. Gerontologist. 2008 Feb;48(1):59-70. Centre for Mental Health Research, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.