Boost Your Habits of Helping

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Few suggestions for how to appreciate all the ways you’re currently giving to others—and to expand your habits of helping.

Keep a journal about the large and small ways you are giving to people right now. If you are having trouble thinking of any, ask a friend or loved one. You may be surprised to find that a friendly smile, a question about how things are going, or an offer to pick up groceries helped someone through a rough patch. Once a week write down all the things you can remember doing for others, and discover how much you are already giving. In my own experiences, I’ve observed that these journals are useful to people of different ages, from high school students performing service learning projects to older adult volunteers.

Make it a practice to help one person every day. This is an easy and gratifying exercise that, with very little practice, can become a natural part of your daily routine. Whether you help by holding the elevator, dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s hand, or pitching in to help with a loved one’s chore, notice how this makes you feel. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that people who perform acts of kindness (five acts on a single day each week) tend to feel happier after six weeks. I would suggest also trying one act a day, each and every day, as author Cami Walker did as she was struggling with multiple sclerosis, chronicled in her book 29 Gifts. Experiment and find the right dose and intensity that makes you happy.

Visualize helping. Every morning, take just a few minutes to close your eyes and visualize yourself helping some of the people you know you will encounter during the day. In psychology, this is called “priming,” and lots of new research suggests it’s very effective in shaping behavior. For instance, a study by psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver found that people were more willing to help someone in need after they’d been prompted to think about a caring and supportive figure in their lives. If you do a little positive mental imaging before your day begins, you’ll be more likely to respond helpfully to the world around you.

Draw on your own talents in giving. Research shows that we benefit most when we help others by drawing on our natural gifts. People find it easier to consistently help others when they are doing things they believe they are good at. So think about your own skills, what you most enjoy doing; as long as you’re passionate about it, that’s what counts. Reaching out in the way that best suits you helps keep you on track.

Think about the ways others have given to you, right now or in the past. You may want to give back to them with a simple, heartfelt “thank you,” or even a letter letting them know how much they helped you. Research by psychologist Christopher Peterson has found that writing such a gratitude letter, and delivering it in person, makes people feel significantly happier for a month.

Practice concentric visualizations, from the nearest to the neediest. Here is an exercise you can do anytime. Close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to the person in your life you love most. Now open your eyes. How do you feel? Imagine that person smiling back and laughing with you. Next, close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to someone who is just an acquaintance, and feel that same response and laughter. Finally, close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to someone who you think is really in need of help, and feel that response and laughter. Then, imagine how you can help that person, and go out and do it.

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