A random act of kindness is a usually unpremeditated activity which selflessly benefits another person or other people. It could be as small as leaving an affirming note in a library book for the next reader to find, or sharing your lottery win with another person who is not necessarily your kin or a friend. In fact, the latter did happen in 1984, when New York police officer Robert Cunningham split a lottery win with a waitress in a local pizzeria, who received around $3m as a result (there was even a film made about this incredible story, starring Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda)!
The point of a random act of kindness is to bring happiness to someone’s day. Although doing something small, such as paying for the coffee of the person behind you in the line at the coffee shop, may not seem like much to you, it could be what another person needs to feel happier and more at ease in their world.
But where does this phenomenon come from? And what are some examples that you can try yourself? We explore, below.
Random acts of kindness: The history
The phrase is part of a longer quote – ‘random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty’ – which was coined by American author Anne Herbert. In 1993, Herbert published an illustrated children’s book with this phrase as its title, encouraging the creation of a better world through kindness.
However, the concept of spreading kindness to others was established long before it was given this name. For example, the Jewish ‘mitzvah’ refers to a charitable act, and is encouraged in Kabbalistic teachings. Meanwhile, the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Christian Bible teaches us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – in other words, treat others as you would like to be treated. All recognised religions encourage kindness, and this value has been central to the world’s oldest faiths for thousands of years.
Religion aside, kindness was a key virtue in the Tirukkuṟaḷ, an ancient Indian text on ethics and morality; in the mediaeval chivalric code; and in the philosophical school of Stoicism formed in Ancient Rome. Even animals have been shown to exhibit a type of ‘kindness’ in the sense of altruism; for example, humpback whales have been shown to protect seals and other animals from killer whale attacks.
Kindness seems to exist in many different and unrelated walks of life, so it is very likely that it is an intrinsic part of ‘being’.
What effect do random acts of kindness have on humans?
A random act of kindness may brighten someone’s day by positively impacting their mental wellbeing. When you are a recipient of love and attention, your body releases oxytocin – also known as the ‘love hormone’ – which can have an antidepressant effect.
This impact may even continue in the days, weeks or even months following the event, as they look back upon the act of kindness and remember how it made them feel. Furthermore, a random act of kindness can create a domino effect: if someone is on the receiving end of the good deed, they may feel obliged to pass on the positivity to another person by doing something kind themselves. This is backed up by the fact that oxytocin plays a role in the ‘rewiring’ of the brain’s reward system following social interactions, and this reinforces social behaviour.
9 random acts of kindness to try now
1. Let someone go in front of you in a queue
If your task is not urgent and you have a bit of spare time on your hands, why not let someone else go first in the queue at the supermarket, coffee shop or post office? This is often helpful when the person standing behind you has just a few items in their basket, or if they’re elderly or disabled.
2. Give up your seat on public transport
If you are an able-bodied person, you should be giving up your seat on public transport for those who are pregnant, disabled or elderly. Sadly, this is an often forgotten social rule, but you can keep it alive by becoming aware of the people you share public transport with, and their needs.
3. Pay for another customer’s coffee
Some coffee shops offer the option for customers to pay for an extra coffee, so that another customer may receive their order for free. This is often the case in areas with high rates of homelessness, so that an unhoused person can obtain a hot drink without having to pay.
4. Give a compliment
Saying something positive about someone’s personality or appearance can make them feel more confident about themselves, which is especially beneficial for those who may have low self-esteem.
5. Send a card
Cards can be sent for a variety of reasons, from a birthday to an apology. It is a low-cost way of showing someone personal attention, and it may even serve as a keepsake for the recipient.
6. Call a friend or family member
An unexpected phone call from a loved one can be enough to bring someone out of a low mood. As social creatures, we all need interaction, and so talking to a friend or family member – even on the phone – can be a remedy to loneliness.
7. Leave a positive review for a small business
Whether it’s a restaurant, shop, hairdresser or other type of business, a good review can mean the world to the business owner! Try to be specific in your review, mentioning a particular aspect such as good customer service or the quality of their product. It could make a real difference to a small business during the current financial crisis!
8. Pick up rubbish
Unfortunately, litter happens, whether accidental or deliberate. You can make a difference to the quality of living in your local community by donning a pair of gloves and picking up any rubbish you see whilst on a walk. You could also join regular organised clean-ups in areas where there are larger amounts of litter.
9. Talk to a lonely person at a party
Coming to a social event alone can be awkward and frustrating, especially if you are a shy person. Instead of leaving an individual to their own devices, strike up a conversation with them. You never know, you could make a new friend out of it! But if not, at least you have made someone feel less lonely and more valued.
Is being kind selfish?
Being kind to others can make you feel good in yourself, which is why some say that a random act of kindness cannot be a truly selfless act. However, if it makes others feel good as well as yourself, everybody wins! Try to ignore the scepticism, and instead embrace the cycle of positivity that you are creating in the world.
Which random act of kindness will you try today?