Be nice and you'll be happy

Acts of kindness to our fellow human beings don’t only benefit others – they boost our own well-being, too, experts believe. Flemmich Webb goes in search of the do-good factor

I'm going to be extra nice today. Don't get me wrong: I'm not normally an uncaring person, just occasionally self-absorbed or simply too busy to think about others. Anyway, someone in less of a rush can always help out.

 

But this morning, I'm hoping things might be different. In my hand, I have a flyer promoting the UK's first-ever Close the GAP (Give Appreciate Participate) day. The idea is simple: today on 13 November (also World Kindness Day) spend a day being nice to people. The card claims "doing good does you good" by boosting your immune system,  reducing stress hormones and increasing "well-being" hormones, such as endorphins.

Really? Intrigued by the idea that you can improve how you feel without a) buying a new gadget b) draining four pints of lager c) trying (and failing) to attain a six-pack at the gym, I decide to go to Brighton to put it to the test.

There are some handy tips for nice things to do such as: "Pay someone a compliment"; "Send a thoughtful text"; "Buy someone lunch"; and "Smile at people on public transport" but I'm a little sceptical. If someone smiles at me on the train, my first thought is "Serial killer" not "How lovely; that giant bloke with tattoos and a bolt through his nose wants to share the love". But since I am feeling stressed and grumpy today, I'll see if doing good deeds cheers me up.

I spot a street cleaner waiting to cross the road, and offer to push her cart across the road. She looks baffled, but agrees after I explain why I'm asking. When we reach the other side of the road, I ask how she feels.

"I thought it was sweet of you – I usually just get drunk blokes asking if they can use my broom," Kate says. "I feel rather good; I think I'll go and do something nice now. Buoyed by this early success and a buzz of bonhomie from interacting with a total stranger, I offer a hug to a woman standing on the seafront. She accepts.

"The last time I did this, I ended up marrying him," Kay from Lincolnshire jokes, as we break apart from the embrace, both flushed with the unexpected thrill of a random encounter. "In fact, my husband is standing just over there."

I hurry off – I can see how one might get into trouble being this friendly. But now I'm on a roll. I intercept a young woman at a food counter and before she can say no, I buy her a hotdog.

"Initially, I thought it was a bit weird of you to offer," says Maria, a Brighton resident, "but now I think it was rather nice; it's made me feel a little happier."

And you know what, I feel happier, too — and it's only cost me £3.50 in pork products. People seem to be responding positively to my largesse, which is making me feel better about myself and has lightened my mood. But is this just my impression or is there a scientific basis explanation for what is happening?

"Close the GAP day is about our ability to determine our own health through our actions," says Dr Barbara Mariposa, who came up with the concept partly in response to her own experience of suffering from depression.

"Just like when you go running, endorphins like serotonin are released when you are generous and kind and put your attention on the needs of the other person. It's like jogging for the soul, really."

According to Mariposa, other benefits include an improved immune system and physical changes in the structure and functioning of the brain that mean we are less likely to interpret the world in a negative or stressful way.

And, as we've all probably experienced at some point, if you have a positive outlook, you tend to trigger a positive response in others. "Being nice to people opens up more positive interactions for the individual," says Dr Dan Robotham, senior researcher at the Mental Health Foundation, which focused on how doing good things for other people is vital for mental health and wellbeing, during its Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this year.

"It helps us to become more integrated socially with others, and helps us adjust to our environment and become more of an active participant in it. If we act negatively all the time we tend to create a wall that isolates us from those around us."

It's not just about feeling better for the sake of it. Improving the nation's mental ill health is a Coalition aim, not least because it is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, contributing up to 22.8 per cent of the total burden, compared to 16.2 per cent for cardiovascular disease and 15.9 per cent for cancer.

Estimated annual costs for depression in England are £20.2–23.8bn a year and for anxiety £8.9, when you factor in the cost of  lost employment.

Back on the streets of Brighton, I end the day waving at cyclists as they go up and down the seafront. Some smile, some don't, some look concerned, some cycle faster, but by now I feel so good, it wouldn't matter if they told me to take a running jump into the sea.

Dishing out goodwill, it seems, is beneficial to me and the recipients, can be free and is surprisingly fun — so much fun in fact, that I might try being extra nice tomorrow as well. You never know, I might even hug that guy with the tattoos.

The Close the GAP launch party is at the Bernie Grant Centre, London, at 8pm tonight. See closethegapday.com for details and to find out how you can get involved. See kindness uk.com for details on World Kindness Day

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