Doing something kind or charitable makes us happy the way food and sexual pleasure make us happy, according to several studies. “Oh, really? What studies?” you may ask. Well, this one, this one, and the ones cited here, for instance. SEVERAL STUDIES.
People are also be more likely to give when they’re in a good mood. You can read about that here. Happiness leads to kindness which leads to happiness. It’s a total upward spiral that almost anyone can fall into if she isn’t careful.
So why don’t I reach for this quick pick-me-up more often? Lots of us say, “I’ve had a bitch of a day. I need a drink” (or pizza, or a Netflix marathon, or maybe all three). But I certainly never think, “This week has sucked. At least it’s Friday night and I can go give some blood.” Or, “I’m feeling down. I’m going to donate ten bucks to an animal shelter right now!”
Basically, I haven’t used acts of kindness as a self-care strategy enough times for it to become a habit. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First of all, we don’t talk a lot about charitable acts. Christians in particular have been taught that we should be doing them because they are the right thing to do, not so that we get praise for them. This is all very correct in theory, but I wonder if it’s so great in practice. When I hear other people talk about workouts, I sometimes think, “Hey, I bet I’d feel better if I worked out.” I rarely hear people talk about acts of kindness or charity, so I don’t get that reminder.
When people indicate on Facebook that they’ve donated somewhere, I think that’s great. One hundred people might think that person is an ass, but the one-hundred-and-first person might see it and be inspired to donate, too. That’s why charities make that option available.
In the U.S., though, our puritanical streak is so deep that not only are we not supposed to get praise from others for doing good, we’re not even supposed to do it in order to feel good ourselves. That’s selfish! We should be doing it because we care about others!
I actually think it’s fine for people to do charitable things for selfish reasons. If I were raising money for, say, a domestic violence shelter, I wouldn’t care about your motives. I would just be glad to get the money for the new washer and dryer or whatever we needed most that week, and if showing off got more people to donate, then awesome.
And if I donate blood, or drop a couple of boxes of cereal (name brands are best, by the way) at the food pantry, for the sole purpose of making myself feel good, guess what? The blood still works. The cereal still tastes good.
I haven’t done good things all that much, but when I do, it always makes me feel happier and better about myself, which is a lot more than I can say for drinks or even Netflix marathons. It’s a sure thing.
I’ve sometimes wondered why conservative Christians are so damn happy. I suspect it’s because they go to church every single Sunday (I believe liberal Christians are more likely to be slackers in attendance, though I can’t cite proof), and they do other churchy things. If they’re not putting money in offering plates, they’re helping with the spaghetti supper to raise money for disaster relief or whatever, and so they’re always totally high on dopamine.
Let’s stop pretending acts of kindness should only be done out of concern for others. It’s prudish, like saying sex should only be for procreation. I think we’d do good things more often, and we’d all be better off, if we just admitted how awesome it feels.