The secret to happiness? Just be nice

The Globe and Mail

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If you're looking for a mood shift on a cranky day, try holding the door open for a stranger, popping a coin in an expiring parking metre, or just being, well, nice to someone else.

A new York University study has found that performing "small acts of kindness" can make you happy - and not just in the moment - but a big enough dose to inspire a happiness high for months.

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In a study of 700 people, to be published in the spring issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, participants performed good deeds for another person for less than 15 minutes a day, over the course of a week, either by actually helping them out, or just being supportive. The participants showing compassion still felt the effects six months later - and reported significantly larger increases of self-esteem and happiness than the control group.

"What's amazing is that the time investment required for these changes to occur is so small," said Myriam Mongrain, associate psychology professor in the faculty of health. "We're talking about mere minutes a day."

She theorized that people who treat others kindly may also be more charitable with themselves, and more positive generally in their world view. "Furthermore, providing support to others often means that we will get support back. That is why caring for and helping others may be the best possible thing we can do for ourselves. On a less selfish level, there is something intrinsically satisfying about helping others and witnessing their gratitude."

Several other studies have also found that acting generously toward others can be an effective exercise for positive mental health. For instance, in March, a study published by the American Psychological Association suggested that mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety could be treated with lifestyle choices instead of medication. Included on the list was service to others, which could bring on, what researchers call "a helper's high." (The paper does warn against caregiver burnout, for people who go too far.)

But five to 15 minutes of charity daily? You can probably get the (good) deed done just by pressing the door-open button on the elevator a few times a day.

Your perk: Leave work, whistling.

What's your good deed of the day?

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen