Why do we like to help others? This is a question I have asked myself over the years. When I was much younger and way before I learnt about psychology or trained to become a coach, I noticed that sometimes when I did something kind or thoughtful for a stranger, it had a tendency, to set off a chain reaction.

The list below (which is by no means definitive) may help shine a light on why we humans as a species seem compelled to help others in need, even to the point of risking our own lives.

Why do we want to help others?

  1. It’s part of the human experience. As a species we are social animals, our hunter gatherer ancestors knew the significance of their tribe and remaining part of it. If you were excluded from your tribe it was pretty much a guaranteed death sentence. A good way to ensure you don’t fall foul of the tribe is to ensure you are kind and useful to others. So it may well be that we have an instinctive interest to help others to improve your chances of survival.
  2. It activates your brain’s reward centres. Scientists have performed various experiments and scanned the brain’s activity. What they have discovered is when participants gave willingly rather than being forced into something, there were higher amounts of dopamine in the part of the brain associated with processing unexpected rewards. This activation could explain why people continue to give even when it can be perceived to come at a cost.
  3. It strengthens social bonds and connection. When you help another person, you get a positive feeling in return. Also for the person you’ve helped, they also get a feel good boost thanks to your action. This creates a strong sense of belonging and connection between people. In communities where kindness is valued, people are generally more likely to feel safe and happy.
  4. It boosts your self-esteem. The positive feelings you get from helping others has a direct correlation on how you see yourself. Research suggests that when people give, especially to people they don’t know, it increases their self-esteem. That help can include donating money, volunteering or simply spontaneous acts of kindness.
  5. It improves your relationships. We know that helping others brings with it a strong bond between people and groups of people. This strong bond is what could mean life or death for our hunter gatherer ancestors on the Savannahs. All relationships benefit when people approach them with a giving mindset rather than what they can get for themselves.
  6. It’s good for the community. It is said that living in close-knit communities offers individuals a sense of happiness and security as well as belonging. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as well, with strong bonds and a sense of belonging, you are more likely to fight off any invading tribe or wild animal that could pose a threat.
  7. It gives meaning to life. Humans have always searched for the meaning in life. Research shows it may be connected to helping others. In a preliminary study from The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers asked 400 participants how often they engaged in kind deeds and how meaningful their life felt. Participants who reported more selfless actions found greater meaning in their lives.

The Kindness Ripple Effect

The first instance of what I call the kindness ripple effect, I can recall with clarity, was when I learnt to drive. Where I lived the roads were not really built for the amount fo traffic on them and this meant at certain times, traffic would slow down and crawl along at a snails pace. When I had the opportunity, I would let someone who was patiently waiting at a junction to pull out in front of me and join the queue of traffic. Nothing amazing in that act, however I noticed that person I had allowed to pass in front of me, nearly always would return the favour to a fellow motorist further along our crawling journey around town. Sometimes I saw this happen multiple times as each person passed the good deed on. That’s the kindness ripple effect in action.

I have also seen this happen with young people giving up their seats on public transport, inspiring others to do the same, kids sharing sweets in the playground and people offering to help strangers in need. A kindhearted gentlemen helped me out with a his act of kindness just the other day. We had been to the builder’s merchant to pick up some paving blocks. This meant we needed to take a trailer, I’ll admit, pulling a trailer is not one of my natural strengths, going forwards fine, but reversing the damn thing, well that’s a different story! I can not get the trailer to go anywhere in reverse!! So to simplify my life I usually just pull up and unhitch the trailer and manhandle it into the garage rather than trying to reverse it in.

Now usually, when I do this, the trailer it is empty and it is a simple enough process to manoeuvre it into place. However trying to do it full of concrete blocks is a whole different ball game. It is heavy, frickin’ heavy! I was working up a sweat. My other half was trying to help as well but she is recovering from an accident so wasn’t able to apply the strength needed to get it up the curb and into the garage. We spent a few minutes trying different approaches and I was even considering trying to reverse it into the garage myself (which is my nightmare).

When out of nowhere a gentleman comes wandering over and offers to help us. I have never seen him before, he was a complete stranger, but there was something in his nature, a willingness to help those in need, which meant as a result we were able to get the trailer in the garage! I can tell you I was so grateful.

His kindness, touched me and it stuck with me, so a few days later when I went past our local pétanque court and saw a band of locals shovelling gravel into wheelbarrows and raking it into place, I didn’t hesitate to offer them a helping hand. It was a great opportunity to help out others in the community and in the process I bumped into a good friend I haven’t seen for ages and got to know one of my neighbours a little better. It also gave me a nice little glow, knowing I had helped them in my own little way.

TNTs (Tiny Noticeable Things)

I remember attending a lecture with a wonderful character called Adrian Webster, I had never heard of him prior to the lecture, but his down to earth manner and wicked sense of humour was a hit. I was fully engaged and soaked up everything he had to say in his lecture. As part of his lecture he spoke about TNTs (Tiny Noticeable Things), which he has gone on to write a whole book about (as a side note, I totally recommend this book, it will restore your faith in humanity when you read about what people do for others).

Adrian defines a TNT as a Tiny Noticeable Thing that nobody needs to do, but when somebody does do it, it creates an explosive, highly impactful image that exceeds expectations and makes a very big difference. The shock-waves generated by such an act are both profound and long lasting. Thinking is reshaped and relationships transformed.

I thought that Adrian’s TNT idea was a wonderful thing, and it has inspired me to drop a TNT whenever I can nowadays. I have learnt over time that when you get the right action at the right time the impact can be enormous. No only do you get to help someone else and get your own fuzzy glow in return, it can actually create the biggest and long lasting impression in people’s minds which can last a lifetime.

These actions can have such impact, often inspiring the receiver to go out and drop their own TNTs as well. Which in turn can inspire others and so on, it literally becomes a chain reaction of explosive kind actions, that has the potential to keep on going. You remember the Kindness Ripple Effect I wrote about earlier?

So I invite you, the next time the opportunity presents itself, why not try dropping your own TNT and see what happens? I’d love to hear about it, if you would like to share how it went in the comments.

Donating trees for future generations

You can also include TNTs in business too, I donate 10% of my coaching fee direct to One Tree Planted every time I have a coaching session. When I tell a coachee that I have donated trees in their name for the very first time, it has always been a great experience to see their faces light up as I tell them about the difference we’ve made in the world by working together.

I now have clients who look forward to hearing about where in the world their trees were planted since we last met. They can even take away a little info sheet about the habitat and the benefits the trees will bring etc. One client has requested his trees are always planted in a specific reforestation project because they have a personal affinity with the country in question.

The idea of doing something for others and the greater good is something that sits firmly behind why I decided to donate to One Tree Planted. I love the concept that as we work together not only will the coachee begin to grow and flourish, so too will their trees. That symbolism is not why I decided to donate though, I have always found being outside in nature, relaxing, calming and good for my well-being. It is for this reason I took the decision to donate, it is my way of helping future generations to have the opportunity to share those same benefits I have been fortunate enough to experience. All the other numerous upsides these reforestation programmes bring with them, including helping other animals and insects and of course the earth itself are a wonderful bonus too! 😊

Random acts of kindness are good for you

When I was studying to become a coach, I was intrigued to learn that random acts of kindness has been identified as a way for people to improve their overall well-being and have a positive impact on others. In his book Flourish, Martin Seligman, the forefather of Positive Psychology writes about how one day he was in a queue which was moving at a snails pace waiting to buy some one-penny stamps. He remarked that people’s moods were low and tempers fraying owing to the amount of time it was taking. When he finally got to the front of the queue he asked for ten sheets of 100 stamps (costing him all of 10 dollars). He then turned to the queue and shouted “Who needs one-penny stamps? They’re free”. People burst into applause and clustered around him as he gave away his treasure. Within a couple of minutes everyone from that slow moving queue had dispersed, liberated to resume their days with their stamps in hand. He tells us that this was one of his most satisfying days of his life.

As Martin has gone on to work in the world of positive psychology and identified the different areas where people can improve their levels of happiness and well-being, the random act of kindness has become a well known and highly effective intervention to help lift people’s moods.

Random Acts of Kindness Foundation

If this newsletter has inspired you, but you are unsure where to start, I highly recommend you head over to the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website (randomactsofkindness.org). This website is filled with so many different resources where people can implement random acts of kindness at home, at school and at work.

It even has a free Kindness Calendar you can download. Each day of the year has an idea for an act of kindness you can implement. How cool is that?

I hope that by reading this blog you have learnt a little bit about why we like to be kind, how acts of kindness can have explosive impacts with ripples that can be far reaching and perhaps now you’ve got the resources to inspire you to go out and drop your own TNTs.