Be Nice! Good Deeds Are Good For You, Too

Laura McMullen

Kindness is a virtue. Love thy neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Being nice isn't revolutionary advice--but when your day starts by getting cut off in traffic, then chewed out at work, and you come home to see war and murder on the news, you kind of want to issue a reminder to humanity. Instead of wishing we could all just get along, it's up to us to spread some cheer. Do something nice for a friend, neighbor, or complete stranger, and chances are, he'll feel encouraged to pay it forward in return.

"When you're doing good deeds, you're enticing a common feeling across two people, and that's part of what knits a community together," says Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the upcoming book Love 2.0. And make sure it's coming from a selfless place: Don't expect applause from the wait staff for leaving your server a generous tip, and don't assume your neighbor will return the favor if you shovel her driveway. "I define kindness as doing something nice for your fellow mankind with no expectation of return," says Brooke Jones, manager of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, a nonprofit based in Denver.

Of course, as anyone who's ever done something nice knows (and we hope that's everyone), you do get something in return. It feels good to be nice--and it's healthy, too. Doing good not only guides you "on this path to be a better version of yourself," says Fredrickson, but it "actually makes us physically healthier and puts us on a trajectory of growth." Specially, positive personal connections have been linked to better heart health.

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Fredrickson says good deeds that involve eye contact or voice engagement are ideal. "Our brains automatically simulate what another person is feeling when there's eye contact," she says. "Physically being connected, even if it's shared voice, makes a profound difference in the biological aspect." No wonder your mother prefers a phone call or visit to an E-mail.

So why not start the new year on a positive note? Consider one of these good deeds. Some take a few seconds; others can continue for a lifetime.

Five minutes or less:

Pay for a stranger. The next time you're checking out at Starbucks or Kroger, tell the cashier you'd like to pay for the person behind you, too. Whether it's a $3 latte or $50 worth of groceries, the gesture will leave your fellow shopper beaming--and perhaps encouraged to pay it forward themselves.

Scrape the windshield of your neighbor's car, or shovel his sidewalk. If you're already outside and bundled up anyway, why not? Plus, the extra calories burned may cancel out a hot chocolate when you're done.

Bring treats to share at the office. Or if you know one of your coworkers is down in the dumps, give her a cupcake from that bakery she loves.

[See Seasonal Affective Disorder: Don't Let It Get You Down.]

An hour or two:

Volunteer. Help out at a soup kitchen. Read to the elderly at a nursing home or to students at an underfunded school. Befriend some furry friends at an animal shelter. Look into national volunteer organizations, which can pair you with legitimate opportunities in your area. Check out Volunteers of America, Red Cross, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Cook for a neighbor. You're already cooking a casserole for the family, so why not make a second for your neighbor, especially if you suspect she's struggling?

Weed your neighbor's garden. Maybe 80-year-old Mr. Johnson waves to you every morning, but his knees don't work quite like they used to, which makes kneeling in mulch a pain. Or maybe Mr. and Mrs. Smith just had a baby, and their garden has dropped to the bottom of the priority list. No need to plant them a patch of begonias, but simply pulling weeds will make their property look better and their day a little brighter.

[See Why I Learned to Grow My Own Food and Four Tips for Starting Your Garden.]

A day:

Help build a house. Programs like Habitat for Humanity host programs that allow people to work together to build affordable homes for low-income families. Talk to your company's human resources department to corral a group of coworkers to participate. Often, the company will pay for a day off work to volunteer.

Play waterboy (or girl). Do those runs to raise money and awareness for noble causes seem like a great idea--if only you were capable of huffing along for 10 kilometers? Ask the race organizer if you can help in other ways, perhaps by handing out water or checking in runners, Jones suggests. "They're not glamorous jobs, but it makes things happen seamlessly, and they're always in need of volunteers."


Volunteer. Remember when you took an hour or two to read at a school or visit folks at a nursing home? Imagine doing that, say, every week or two for months and years at a time. "I know a lot of [nursing homes] get a lot of a-day-here, a-day-there-volunteers, but to be able to rely on somebody for a year is huge," Jones says.

[See 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100.]

Share your skills. Depending on your profession, there may be a need for free or discounted services in underprivileged communities. Dentists, for example, could pick one day each month to offer free cleanings to children in the town over. If a nearby community has just suffered through a terrible storm, plumbers could inspect affected homes' pipes. To find the best way to regularly volunteer your skills, look into your profession's national association, Jones suggests. (Dentists would check with the American Dental Association.)

Make it a family thing. Teach your children that kindness matters by leading by example. Volunteer together. Bake cookies together and give them to a neighbor. When you go to a park or playground, make a habit of picking up a bagful of litter while you're there. If good deeds become as normal an activity as carpooling to soccer practice and watching Glee together, your kids will be more likely to spread kindness for a lifetime.

Do you have ideas for good deeds to add? Tell us on Facebook or Twitter.