Some of you may have come to realise that one of the latest crazes in the western world is the “pay it forward” concept of conducting random acts of kindness (or RAKS). A RAK, essentially, is when somebody does something kind for someone else (typically a stranger). The person who received the RAK then does something kind for someone else and so forth, “paying it forward”, so the kindness continues on and on.
The “pay it forward” notion helps connect and unite people closer together and encourage collectivism (working together for “the common good”) over individualism (a social outlook that emphasises the worth of the individual over community groups). In a predominately individualistic society where segregation dominates, this is greatly needed to help connect communities of people to one other, increasing loyalty and group awareness.
The biology of acts of kindness
It has also been found that RAKs actually have a biological benefit to us. Whenever an act of kindness is conducted, witnessed or received it produces a flood of happy chemicals to the brains of the people involved. These chemicals include oxytocin (not to be mistaken with the dangerous narcotic OxyContin) and dopamine. Oxytocin has been affectionately dubbed the “love drug” and is the same chemical that is released in the female brain after she has intercourse which causes her to “fall in love”, even with less desirable males. It is also the same chemical that gets discharged after a 20 second hug between people. Ultimately, this means that random acts of kindness make us feel loving, friendly, caring and affectionate towards each other!
The other chemical involved – Dopamine – is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Dopamine helps regulate emotional responses and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action and to move toward them (RAK = reward = repeat action = more RAKs).
Once you understand the chemical basis behind how random acts of kindness works, you begin to see the power in them and why this concept has become so big, so fast.
Authentically giving; the leap of faith without expectation
Interestingly enough, I – as The Happiness Ninja – have found that if I conduct an act of kindness for any other purpose than to be randomly and genuinely kind, without wanting anything in return, I do not succumb to those same pleasure feelings as a genuine random act of kindness. I will give you an example: When I was completing my Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing, part of an assessment was to go out and conduct 5 random acts of kindness in one day. Now, I planned these acts of kindness in advance and I joined them with a charity I was already involved in to “make life easier”. In short – I used the 5 gifts that I was giving away to the charity as my 5 required random acts of kindness. I didn’t know this would happen at the time but later realised that this in itself actually decreased the amount of pleasure I received from doing the act of kindness because it was no longer random and genuine to me; it filled a need of my own – to complete my assessment. I know that this happened because I impromptuly decided to conduct an actual random act of kindness later that day (probably because I hadn’t received the same flood of happy chemicals that I usually did) and I went to the local post office to buy a set of Christmas cards (this was late December 2014). I decided to write messages on the cards and place them on peoples’ car windscreens that were parked in the street. This act of kindness (despite costing far less money and being less worthwhile for the receiver than the other acts of kindness that were gifts for orphaned children), actually provided far greater joy and happiness to me than my other acts of kindness that day. I believe this to be because realistically this had now become an obligation to finish an assessment as opposed to a true act of kindness.
I have actually tested this theory on myself several times in various ways and maintain similar results: unless the act of kindness is a real, true and genuine act of kindness without any other merit or intentions behind it, those feelings of warmth, love, care, affection and overall burst of happiness, are not activated even remotely as strong, if at all, as a genuine and loving, true random act of kindness.
About the author: Jamie views Positive Psychology as her lifes’ calling – to help change the world. She is the 47th person in the world to finish the only government accredited Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing in existence. She has designed a free 21-day Happiness Program to introduce people to retraining their brain for greater happiness. www.thehappinessninja.com.au