A Tiny Good Deed Can Go a Long Way

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Photo: Veronika Surovtseva/Shutterstock

You already know the “secret” to happiness: Do something nice for someone else. Now, some new research takes that idea one step further, finding that getting more specific about the random act of kindness you’re planning can actually end up making you even happier. For example: Aiming to make someone smile (and succeeding) will ultimately make you happier than the comparatively abstract goal of trying to make them happy. 

In one experiment,University of Houston marketing professor Melanie Rudd and colleagues gave a group of 50 adults a 24-hour challenge: Some were told to do something in the next day to make someone happy, while others were told to make someone smile. The next day, after accomplishing their little good deed, the people who’d made someone smile said they felt both happier and more confident that they’d actually achieved their goal than the people who’d simply tried to make someone else happy. Rudd found similar results when she asked people to try to save the environment versus increase their own recycling efforts for one day.

Really, the reason why specific good deeds — what psychologists call prosocial acts — ultimately make us happier is pretty simple, Rudd said in an email to Science of Us: We just like the feeling of accomplishing something. “If you can meet or exceed your expectations of achieving a goal, you will be happier than if you fall short of your expectations,” she explained. And, okay, that seems a little like common sense, she acknowledged. But a separate experiment in the study showed that people incorrectly predicted that they’d feel happier by going after the bigger, more abstract goal of trying to make someone else happy than they would after trying to make someone else smile.

It’s true outside of this context, too, she explained; past research has found that people feel better about their accomplishments when they aim to exercise at the gym a certain number of times per week than when they aim for the fuzzier goal of living a healthier lifestyle. So goals that are small but concrete — deciding to call your grandma, or pick up an iced coffee for your bleary-eyed co-worker, or drop a birthday card in the mail — seem to result in the biggest returns on your own happiness. When it comes to good deeds, it may be better to think small.