Have you ever had that warm fuzzy feeling when you help an elderly person carry their shopping, or return a wallet dropped by a parent struggling to cope with screaming children? Similarly, a simple smile from a stranger when your eyes meet whilst walking down the street can leave both parties with a spring in their step. These moments in time can boost your mood for the rest of the day.
Simple acts of kindness make us feel positive. We feel good, and those that receive the acts of kindness do too. Trials have shown that the majority of people who receive ‘pay it forward’ acts of kindness are likely to pass on acts of kindness to others. Spread the love, I say! I recall a day, cycling in torrential rain shortly after moving to Japan. A white van suddenly pulled over and an old man thrust an umbrella out of his passenger window at me before driving off. After the initial confusion/alarm, I realized he was donating his umbrella to protect me from the rain. The memory of this selfless gesture has stayed with me to this day.
To pass on some of that love, I later volunteered in the same town giving classes in British cuisine. I must admit, I loved feeling like Mary Berry (our version of Julia Childs) on a cookery show, but the looks on the ladies’ faces and the cries of “Oishii!” (delicious) on tasting their homemade British dishes was the most heart-warming part of it all. I am doubtless there are several families in central Japan that now make Scottish shortbread and fruit scones for school fêtes and festivals! It was a great way to be able to give to the local community and feel like part of it in return.
Studies demonstrate that showing care and compassion for others can reduce depression and build a kinder and more humane society in general. Modern culture may encourage us to look after ‘number one’, however, evidence suggests that prosocial behavior (doing acts of kindness for others) results in greater positive psychological benefits than caring solely for oneself; positive emotions are boosted and negative emotions reduced. This behavior was evident in my village during the pandemic; neighbors would call across the road to each other to see if families were well or if any shopping needed to be done. Although as a society we all suffered, each person tried to help and offer support where they could. People were showing care. The elderly were protected, and the more mobile neighbors volunteered their time and effort to see to it.
Studies performed on the relationships between kindness and happiness, and gratitude and happiness, have also shown that if people feel happy, they are more likely to recognize those traits in others and more likely to demonstrate acts of kindness. Happiness and gratefulness are also increased by counting one’s own acts of kindness. Remember that fuzzy feeling when you helped the elderly person up the stairs with their groceries?
As the majority of people are aware, life can be extremely difficult at times; for the past two years it has been unbearable for many. Since the lockdown, rules have thankfully allowed for more social interaction and the chance to get outside. As there are so many positive benefits to interacting with the natural world, I decided to give back to nature in my village and get some of those positive feelings in return. We have an area of land owned by the Parish Council which is being converted into a public space full of trees; a place to exercise, to see wild flora and fauna, to walk the dog and just breathe. It has been a lifesaver for many during these hard times. For those living alone, walking in this area was the only chance they had of seeing another human being, one lady said it literally saved her life as she was close to taking her own. My first day of volunteering there gave me a real buzz. Run by a group of retired people (I reduced the average age by quite a few years when I joined the group!), tree-planting, pruning and path maintenance were organized with military precision. Now a regular volunteer, I am proud to say I have planted dozens of trees which, with a bit of luck, will be there long after I am gone. I also greatly value the friendships I have forged in my local community with people I would not have otherwise met.
There are many organizations out there, urban and rural. A few minutes of online research can reward you with years of community work and potential friendships. Volunteering has also been associated with increased physical activity, better health and a reduction in the symptoms of depression. It gives you a new purpose in life. It helps you to develop relationships.
Although we may be tempted to opt for ‘retail therapy’, or going for a nice meal to make ourselves feel good; spending time on others, contributing to community activities and helping to make a difference may be the answer we are all looking for.
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