There is an ancient Chinese parable about an old man who knew he would die soon. He wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. He visited a wise man in his village.
"Can you tell me what heaven and hell are like?" he asked.
The wise man led him down a strange path, deep into the countryside. Until finally they came upon a large house.
They went inside and found lots of people and many enormous tables with an incredible array of food. However, the old man noticed that strangely, the people were all thin, hungry and miserable. He observed that they were holding chopsticks 12 feet long. They kept trying to feed themselves, but of course could not get the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks.
The old man then said to the wise man "Now I know what hell looks like, will you please show me what heaven looks like?"
The wise man led him down the same path a little further until they came upon another large house similar to the first. They went inside and saw many people well fed and happy, they too had chopsticks 12 feet long. This puzzled the old man and he asked, "I see all of these people also have 12-foot chopsticks, yet they are well-fed and happy. Please explain this to me.
The wise man replied, "In heaven, we feed each other."
I have heard different versions of this Chinese moral tale but always with the same message. We are all taught as young children to be kind, to share, to treat others as we would wish to be treated and most of us have experienced the warm glow we feel from making another person happy. OK, so science has proven that it might not have a significant effect on your well-being, but being kind and working together with our fellow humans DOES make you a bit happier!
A team from the universities of Oxford and Bournemouth conducted a meta-analysis, which statistically combined the results of over 400 published papers and 21 studies that had investigated the relationship between kindness and happiness.
They calculated that there is indeed an overall effect of kindness on happiness, but that the size of the effect is relatively modest — equivalent to less than one point on a 0-10 happiness scale.
Study lead author Dr Oliver Scott Curry, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, says:
"Humans are social animals. We are happy to help family, friends, colleagues, community members and even strangers under some conditions. This research suggests that people do indeed derive satisfaction from helping others. This is probably because we genuinely care about others' welfare, and because random acts of kindness are a good way of making new friends, and kick-starting supportive social relationships."
He also says:
"Many groups in the last decade have been keen to establish a link between kindness and happiness, including the UK government. Offering kindness to others has been explored as a possible panacea for many of our social ills, ranging from social isolation to more serious mental and physical health conditions. Our review suggests that performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction."
Dr Curry said that while self-help manuals and many pop-psychology articles may profess that helping others has an impact similar to a "wonder drug on mood, it’s more like the effect of a paracetamol".
Oh well, it's a start. Surely it's better to be kind and feel a bit happier than to be unkind and carry around the guilt and bad feeling that upsetting someone causes?
If you're interested in finding out more, you can read the full paper here 'Happy to Help? A review of the causes and consequences of kindness on the well-being of the actor'
What does this Chinese parable say to you? Maybe you get a different message from it? What can you do to be kinder and more helpful to your fellow humans? Does being kind to others make you feel happier? Please comment and let me know your views.