It was the holidays: festive, jolly, filled with good spirits and great intentions. Someone whose giving spirit was working overtime went to a local specialty store and picked up dozens of bottles of hand soap … the kind that smells of cinnamon, vanilla, peppermint, fresh air, apples. That person (or persons – no one really knows) brought them in late one evening or else early one morning and set them out for co-workers.
Watching people over the next several weeks was fascinating. From conversations in elevators to e-mail messages that went to everyone in the division, those bottles generated intense interest and gossip. Better than that, though, was a very definite spike in kindness. Co-workers were smiling and laughing, not lost in their workloads. Elevators actually housed inhabitants who made eye contact … and talked. People were more open and, if not more friendly, at least more willing to extend that friendliness without prompting.
It reminded me of my visit to New York City a month after the World Trade Center towers were felled. For a time, New Yorkers lost the sharpness of their edges and were uncharacteristically sociable. Stuff that might have sent them into a tailspin of unfriendly behavior just flowed like, well, water off a duck’s back.
That’s a bigger example of what happened at work … from a $1 bottle of hand soap. Sure, it was scented and non-industrial, but it rounded some of the edges off my co-workers. And off me, too. Like most businesses and communities these days, we’ve been dealing with downsizing through attrition and a prevailing uncertainty about jobs and the economy. People are working harder with fewer resources, absorbing the work of cohorts who’ve left, buying less with less, and feeling the economic squeeze. In times like that, it’s awfully easy to snap, to be short, to put worry in front and kindness in back. When you sit in a boat full of people who are focused so intently on what it takes to put one foot in front of the other, it’s too easy to adopt the same attitude without realizing it.
But what a difference it makes when you rock that boat. Whatever our anonymous soap star spent must have been repaid 100 times over through smiles and friendly exchanges and through a prevailing spirit of generosity and well-being that still lingers in the hallways. People seemed, well, happier! Or at least more at ease with their daily lives.
There’s scientific evidence to explain why, too. Happiness 360, an educational nonprofit foundation and behavioral laboratory, has as its mission the goal of scientifically increasing the happiness of 10 million Americans by 2013. Here’s what they found in their first five years of scientific inquiry (and 17 rigorous research projects): You and I have 13 behaviors that, when clustered as a group, predict happiness over a 92% probability. Among them are random acts of kindness.
Wait. Whose boat are we rocking, again? Could it be … our very own boats?
Let me say this another way: if we do kind things for other people, we’ll be, on the whole, happier. Plus, if our penchant for random acts of kindness coexists in us with 12 other behaviors – namely having a social-support group, balancing work-life, being spiritual, volunteering, enjoying hobbies, making time for leisure, enjoying music, having intimate relationships, donating, exercising, touching, and engaging in preventative health measures – we can up the ante on our happiness quotient.
Dare we believe it? Well, who would have thought something so simple as buying a few bottles of hand soap would have such a profound effect on 600+ employees? It’s not as though we don’t have hand soap. We do, and it’s kept clean and filled and neat as a pin. The point is, someone went out of the way to be thoughtful and kind and either continues those sneaky ways or has attracted some copycats in the building. There’s already a third batch of fresh, new soaps spread out in the bathrooms over at least three floors. I noticed today that someone started a petition of thanks to the anonymous soap star. It was already full when I signed it.
This random kindness had an unexpected side benefit of helping us all deal with the vagaries of work life. For a few dollars, someone tossed an unexpected behavior into the mix of everyday angst. Everyone is richer for it.
I rather like that.
By the way, the lowest predictors of happiness, according to Happiness 360, are income, wealth, keeping up with the Joneses, taking fancy vacations, having material goods, and, surprisingly, raising children. What do you need to be happy? If those 13 behaviors aren’t on your radar, you might want to do some thinking. Try adding a little kindness – random or otherwise – into your life. See where that takes you. Here’s a great place to start: the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.