Why you should care

No good deed goes unpunished, eh?

The writer is a columnist living in New York City.

“Are you working?” The harried lady loaded with shopping bags wants to know why I’m standing outside Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, holding the heavy brass door for crowds of holiday shoppers.

“No,” I say. “Just standing here.”

She gestures for me to enter in front of her, but I urge her forward. She blinks. “Are you sure?” she asks.

“Yes, yes,” I say. “Go through the door!” Still she won’t move. “Are you positive?” she asks.

This may result in fisticuffs. My attempt to perform a random act of kindness is proving more complicated than expected. When I try holding the door for a spell at the nation’s largest department store, most shoppers offer a quick thanks as they rush through; others ignore me entirely. A few just can’t deal with this simple act of courtesy. They make an obvious beeline for another entrance or shoot quizzical stares. One older lady approaches with a helpful suggestion: “You’re supposed to go into the store.”

By now, everyone is familiar with the so-called Random Acts of Kindness movement. The trend started with the 1994 picture book Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty by Anne Herbert. This was followed by a series of copycat books offering “helpful” ideas. (Sample: “Take an ad out in your local newspaper thanking a tree, a park, a stream or a sunset for giving you comfort.”) Since then, we’ve seen the launch of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and an International Random Acts of Kindness Week. There are dozens of kindness blogs on which proponents share ideas, such as paying someone’s toll, and brag about their do-gooder efforts, like shoveling snow for a neighbor. You can buy random acts calendars and random acts coffee mugs. Oprah, of course, is all over it.

Some say the movement makes a big, self-congratulating show of what should be standard behavior. But, as you might suspect, studies show that folks who practice random acts of kindness enjoy an immediate happiness boost. And during this dark time of year, when the sun lurks below the horizon like a paranoid groundhog, some of us need all the help we can get. If the fastest way to feel better is to (*sigh*) be nice to others, why not give it a try?

Another study showed that folks who perform the same act of kindness daily have lower levels of happiness than those who mix it up.

It’s easy to find opportunities in Manhattan, especially over the holidays, when the streets are packed with clueless tourists. Day one, I take photos for folks flailing with selfies, offer directions to couples puzzling over subway maps and dole out dollars to panhandlers. This doesn’t feel like anything special, so I consult suggestions from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. Some seem farfetched. Make dinner for firefighters? I don’t see how that could end well. Offer deodorant to the homeless? Sounds insulting. But yes, I suppose I could buy coffee for a stranger behind me in line.

Waiting to order at Starbucks, I keep a nervous watch on the door for my victim. Oh no! It’s a cute guy in a suit. What if he thinks I’m hitting on him? I order my usual grande cappuccino and lean in to the cashier. “I’d like to pay for the guy behind me,” I whisper.

Boy, is she smooth! She smiles conspiratorially and asks Mr. Suit for his order, discreetly adding his coffee to my tab. By the time she tells him his drink has been comped, I’ve already fled to the milk counter. His response is adorable. “What?” he says. “REALLY?”

He comes over to say hello, and Lord, he is beaming. “Excuse me,” he says. “I don’t know why, but thank you! Happy holidays!” I leave the café feeling positively high. I feel even better when I get home. There’s a sweet letter from my cleaning lady in response to the gushing thank-you note I left on the kitchen counter. “It made me so happy,” she writes. She signs it with a heart.

Other efforts prove less rewarding. I spend an hour folding clothes to help harried clerks at the Gap and Banana Republic, but with the associates ignoring my efforts, I feel like the un-coolest co-worker in the break room. Another day I pick trash off the streets, post nice comments on Facebook walls (I even “like” one friend’s third new profile photo of the week) and treat a pal to dinner. But my holiday mood is fraying fast. I find myself snapping at a local panhandler: “Dude, I just gave you money!”

Curious to learn why some of my efforts bring joy while others backfire, I consult Kathryn Buchanan, a psychology researcher at the University of Essex. Turns out, the kindness-happiness connection isn’t as clear as I thought. One study she co-authored found that subjects who spent 10 days performing random acts of kindness enjoyed a big boost in their satisfaction levels compared to a control group that did nothing. But a second control group that engaged only in what she dubs “novel acts” — such as learning Japanese on tape — enjoyed a similar lift.

Ms. Buchanan tells me of another study showing that folks who perform the same act of kindness every day have lower levels of happiness than participants who mix it up. Like any activity, helping strangers is subject to what’s known as the hedonic treadmill effect. “Humans adapt quickly to change,” she says.

Clearly, if I want more happiness, I have to keep upping the ante, like a crack addict. The next day, I pack my tote bag with a stack of dish towels, a bottle of Mr. Clean and a toilet scrubber. Next stop: the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

The ladies room of the nation’s most notoriously grubby public space isn’t as filthy as you might expect — New York is not what it used to be. But I set to work, scrubbing bowls in all seven stalls, polishing the toilet paper dispensers and shining the sinks. No one says a word except for a well-dressed lady who sees me scrubbing lipstick off the looking glass. “The mirror looks great,” she says.

Suddenly, it hits me: I don’t really enjoy being kind. I enjoy getting thanked.

Is that all the credit I get? I’m dismayed to find this semi-heroic deed fails to provide the desired boost. But as I leave the station, a scruffy man jumps in my path and asks for a cup of coffee. “Sure!” I say.

When I return with the coffee, my new pal looks delighted. He says he is from Costa Rica and has been out of work for three months. He takes my hand and presses it to his face. I’m not sure how to interpret this gesture, but I worry that my random act of kindness is rapidly evolving into a relationship. I wish him happy holidays and hustle off. Yes, I’ve gotten my fix. Suddenly, it hits me: I don’t really enjoy being kind. I enjoy getting thanked.

Armed with this revelation, I give fresh consideration to one of the nuttiest suggestions from the foundation: Hand out cake to strangers. Obviously, I can’t offer free cake to suspicious New Yorkers. But perhaps passersby will feel safe accepting candy. On my final day, I empty five bags of Hershey’s Kisses into a big plastic bowl and set out for Midtown.

I first approach a middle-aged couple seated at a Bryant Park café table. “Holiday candy?” I offer. They don’t hesitate. At the next table, a Japanese tourist helps himself to two Kisses. A security guard takes a handful. “God bless you!” he says.

It’s surprising how trusting people are. Even those who refuse the candy seem pleased by the offer. “It cheers people up,” observes a friend who is tagging along. I work my way up Sixth Avenue and over to Rockefeller Center, offering candy to families, clerks and folks hanging out at the ice rink. I’ve never been called “sweetheart” so many times in one night. I offer Kisses to exactly 181 bystanders. More than half — 109 by my count — take a treat.

My favorites are those who react as if my paltry offer is somehow too good to be true. “What’s the catch?” they ask. “Who are you with?”

I offer candy to the cops who have been targeted by protesters in the recent justice demonstrations. “Are you trying to poison me?” asks one. “Not tonight!” I respond. Another demands to know what’s in the candy. “I swear, it’s cool!” I tell him.

“At least he didn’t put you in a choke hold,” says my friend.

Down to the last bag of Kisses, I target street workers — hot dog vendors, sidewalk sweepers, Salvation Army bell ringers, a sandwich board man, a limo driver. A few take several handfuls, and I realize they’re being greedy because they’re actually hungry. And then the Kisses run out.

I have to admit, this is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. And at $17 for five bags of candy, it’s ridiculously cheap therapy. Best of all, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Research shows that to maximize your happiness from random acts of kindness, you need only to recollect the nice things you’ve already done. The best gift of all is a “positive memory” of a pleasant exchange, says Patricia O’Grady, a positive psychology expert at the University of Tampa. And for better or worse, the “delighted surprise” of a stranger goes further than gratitude from a family member.

Hey, remember the time I bought coffee for that dude? And how I bought coffee for that other dude? And held the door for everyone at Macy’s? Me too! Yes, it’s going to be a very merry Christmas, for me.

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