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Want to Be Happier? Science Says Pay It Forward

by Chris Poindexter

Being Easter weekend, this seemed like a good time to set aside financial matters for a change and talk about quality of life. If you’re like most people, you’ve felt more stressed lately. It’s not your imagination; people are more stressed out today, and people under stress behave irrationally.

So one key to a more satisfying life is to lower your stress level. That may mean passing over a promotion, separating yourself from a painful relationship, simplifying your lifestyle, or taking a job that pays less money. While removing sources of stress will give you space to think, that will not be enough, just on its own, to raise your overall level of happiness.

Research from Yale involving four-year-old kids has brought to light a fascinating component of human nature that evolution hard-wired into our mental framework. Whatever behaviors we experience interacting with others, we tend to reflect back into the world, both good and bad. The simple way to phrase the conclusions of the research is that if someone does you a solid, you’re more inclined to pass a good deed along to the next person. Perhaps you’ve heard the terms “virtuous circle” or “virtuous cycle”; it turns out those financial terms also apply to human nature outside the world of finance.

According to the research, this virtuous circle of what’s called “prosocial behavior” is one of the key components of our character, that enabled humans to triumph over every other species on the planet. The behaviors that give rise to that prosocial behavior are surprisingly simple and uncomplicated. The bottom line is, if you want to be happier and an influence for good on those around you, all you have to do is follow a few simple guidelines.

Do Something Nice for a Stranger

Prosocial behavior doesn’t have to be expensive or complex — just do something nice for a stranger. There is better than a 70% chance that person will then pass along a good deed of their own to someone else. That means that out of your next 10 interactions, the vast majority of the time that one good deed will create an echo of good deeds — like ripples in a pond.

Avoid Negativity

One of the reasons I quit watching cable news was the constant stream of shrill complaints over petty indignities, and steady stream of negativity. The problem with negativity is that, just like positive interactions, people who experience negative treatment at the hands of strangers have a greater than 70% chance of passing that on to the next person. The mistreatment doesn’t even need to be real, provided the person receiving the negative interaction feels like it’s real. Leaving yourself immersed in a pool of negativity will make you and those around you miserable.

Choose Not to Be Involved in Conflict

It takes two people for conflict to develop, and there’s almost always an opportunity for one party or the other to deescalate the conflict before it develops. Besides being the person who starts a virtuous cycle, the happiest people among us are those who also break the chain of negative interactions by ending conflict before it starts, which is often as simple as just walking away. Conflict can’t exist in a vacuum, and removing yourself from a potential conflict is like taking fuel away from a fire. Walk away, drive away, move to another seat, excuse yourself and walk out; no one will think less of you, and you’ll have stopped a ripple of negative interactions from washing up on someone else’s day.

In some ancient cultures there was a belief that the words you spoke and acts you performed took on a life of their own, went out into the world to accomplish either good or evil, and then brought the results back home. It’s clear now that those cultures understood this key component of human nature. That philosophy, which encouraged kind deeds, provided a framework for a happier, more productive population that didn’t waste their lives in petty conflict.

This Easter & Passover season, when most of us are together with friends and family, is your opportunity to think about what kind of force you want to be in the world. Have a good weekend.

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