Generous people are happier and healthier, yet acts of kindness are often met with suspicion and scorn. Why? David Robson talks to a psychologist who set out to find the answer.

You’d have thought Sandi Mann was offering people a slap in the face – not a steaming cup of coffee. She’d been visiting her local cafe with her children, where they often enjoyed a cheap and cheerful breakfast as a treat before school. The youngest didn’t want the coffee that came with his toast, so she thought she might as well take it round and see if the other customers would like a free treat instead.

What could possibly go wrong? “I thought they’d be delighted – that everything would be warm and cuddly,” she says today. “Instead, I just got stares of bewilderment. There was this suspicion: Had I spat on it? Is it poisoned?” She ended up feeling that she had somehow acted wrongly – when all she wanted to do was offer a free gift.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, had just embarked on a new project to explore the phenomenon of “paying it forward” – a popular philosophy of being generous to a stranger, in the hope they will pass on the kindness to someone else. “The idea is to create a chain – a domino effect,” Mann explains.

Could a single act of kindness have a “butterfly effect”, sending ripples of goodwill through the world?

Mann’s idea was to try it herself for a couple of weeks and observe the way people react. After all, most people might have the intention of being a little bit kinder, yet we feel that we are unable to muster up the willpower. So why is it so difficult to both give, and accept, kindness? And would it really pay off in the real world – or are we just too cynical in today’s society? Mann recorded the pleasures, and embarrassments, of that journey in her recent book – Paying It Forward : How One Cup of Coffee Could Change the World. (In the spirit of the book’s contents, Mann’s royalties from the book go to a charity for patients with muscular dystrophy.)

Like many people, Mann’s interest in everyday kindness started with a heart-warming post on her Facebook feed. Her American friend Debbie had been visiting a drive-through coffee shop only to find that the person ahead had already settled her bill. “She was so chuffed – it made her day,” says Mann. Straight away, she was intrigued by the philosophy’s potential – the idea that a single act of kindness could “have a knock-on effect, like the butterfly effect”, sending ripples of goodwill through the world.

As Mann started reading up on the subject, she found that the principle has a deep history. In Italy, wealthier Neapolitans have long embraced the tradition of buying a “caffe sospeso” in addition to their own, for someone who is less able to pay for the luxury. Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous proponents of the idea. While lending some money to a friend, he explained: “I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you; when you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him,” he wrote. “This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

Brown left a note with the returned phone – ‘Don’t worry about the money, just do something nice for someone else’

Today, “paying it forward” has become a popular and far-reaching movement – it has even spawned a novel and film. Google the term, and you will read heart-warming stories of grandiose acts of goodwill – like the generous philanthropists anonymously calling hospitals to pay for expensive operations, without expecting so much as a simple thank you.

But often it is the smaller deeds that are most touching. Mann points to the case of Josh Brown, a 12-year-old who found a stranger’s lost phone on a train. The owner was so pleased, she offered him a small reward for the trouble. Instead, he sent a note attached to the returned phone: “Don’t worry about the money, just do something nice for someone else.”

Across all countries – rich or poor – on every continent, people who give tend to be happier people – Michael Norton

These everyday altruists may not get an immediate payback (besides the “giver’s glow”), but people like Brown tend to reap their rewards in terms of general life satisfaction. Michael Norton at Harvard Business School has offered some of the most convincing evidence, repeatedly finding that people who spend a bigger proportion of their income on others tend to be far happier, in the long run, than those spending it on themselves.

Crucially, this is not just the result of the comfortable Western lifestyle: Norton has tested the concept with data from more than 130 countries, from the US to Uganda. “Across all countries – rich or poor, and in every continent – people who gave more tended to be happier people,” he says. For this reason, he thinks the joy of giving appears to be a “psychological universal” – a trait that lies at the core of human nature, independent of your culture.

Taking time to help others may even protect you from disease, Mann says. Over a 30-year study, women who volunteered for a charity were 16% less likely to suffer a major illness during that period – perhaps because it lowers stress levels, which may also, in turn, boost the immune system.

In the same way that we hunger for fat or sugar – we may nurture a natural desire to help other people

There are many possible reasons why acting selflessly may soothe the body and mind in these ways. Giving to others can increase your social connection (who isn’t grateful after they’ve received a nice present) and your sense of purpose in life; you feel like you’ve made a difference, and there is a point in getting out of bed in the morning. Given that humans are social animals, this may be part of our evolved nature, says Norton. In the same way that we hunger for fat or sugar – we may all nurture a deep desire to help other people, he says.

Helper’s high

At least, that’s the theory – yet Mann found that the “helper’s high” was often difficult to earn. Having read the research, she had decided to spend two weeks trying simple, generous acts. “I was very determined that it shouldn’t cost lots of money,” she explains. “So I set myself the challenge that it had to cost less than a pound.”

Her first task should have been simple enough. The setting was familiar – her local coffee shop – and she was accompanied by her (“cringing”) children. All she wanted to do was to give away her seven-year-old’s unwanted cup of coffee. Yet as she walked among the tables, she was just met with suspicion rather than gratitude. “I felt like saying ‘I’m only trying to do something nice.’”

It was only once she framed the act differently, so that it seemed more logical, and less altruistic, that their attitudes changed. “Suddenly it was a different story altogether – it made perfect sense that my kid won’t drink coffee.” They still refused, but “the suspicion vanished, and there were smiles, and thanks”. Eventually it was accepted by a lady named Rochel, who subsequently found an opportunity later in the week to treat someone else.

Suspicion was the strongest reaction throughout

That initial mistrust was a common theme for each of the following 13 days – in which she tried to offer strangers an umbrella on a rainy day, pay for someone’s parking ticket, and let fellow shoppers jump ahead of her in checkout queues. “Suspicion was the strongest reaction throughout,” she says. Each time, it was only when she offered a rational explanation – such as the fact she was waiting for someone at the checkout – that people would accept her offers. Looking back, Mann now explains it as “stranger danger”. “We’re brought up to expect strangers to put one over us,” she says.

Yet there were also moments when she genuinely touched people’s lives. “One man accepted the chocolates, and told me that it’s a great thing spreading love instead of hate,” says Mann. “When you know you’ve given someone’s mood a lift and made a difference – there’s nothing like it.” She even earned a good friend from the experience – she’s still regularly in touch with Rochel, the woman who accepted her coffee on that first day.

If anything, the occasional hostility has only made Mann more determined to persevere. She points to research showing that people have become individualistic over the last few decades, and score about 40% lower on tests of empathy than those brought up in the 1970s. Perhaps we’re just less used to being kind, and receiving kindness in return.

“It’s a sad society if that’s what we’ve become,” she says. “There’s so much hate, negativity, and suspicion, and with everyone’s individualism, we feel like we’re all fighting just for ourselves, but we need to counteract this and start a kindness movement. It sounds cheesy, but I think we need it.”

Spite and meanness are more likely to ripple through a population than goodwill

Critics of the “paying it forward” movement may balk at its artificiality; they may even see it as somewhat coercive, guilt-tripping others into acts of charity they may resent. They may also point to evidence that goodwill does not spread quite as quickly as its proponents would like to believe. Norton’s own research, for instance, has found that spite and greed are far more likely to ripple through a population than generosity. “If someone is stingy, we are much more likely to pay forward that negative behaviour to next person,” he explains.

Yet you could also argue that this is only one more reason why we need a bit more kindness in the world – to neutralise those bad apples. What’s more, even though these random acts of kindness may seem artificial to start with, there is some evidence that they can permanently change you for the better – so that kindness becomes your norm. “You can cultivate habits of virtue,” says David Rand at Yale University, who has found that subjects encouraged to perform good deeds tend to be kinder in subsequent tasks, a kind of “psychological spillover”. Indeed, he thinks that even the most astonishing acts of altruism – such as the heroism during the recent Paris shootings – all grew from tiny seeds of deliberate goodwill that eventually grew into an automatic desire to help others.

Mann, for one, is convinced that we can all change for the better. As a clinical psychologist, she has even started advising people with depression to try and incorporate small acts of generosity or kindness into their therapy. “Depressed people say they have a lack of meaning in life, and that they don’t feel valuable,” says Mann. She emphasises that it isn’t a “cure” – their other therapy is still very important. “But it gives a way to contribute back to society – and that makes them feel good, like they are something useful.”

Start with something in your comfort zone, maybe just smiling at someone in the street, or talking nicely to shop assistants

If you are inspired to give it a go, she suggests you should develop a thick skin. “It takes some courage and guts,” she says. For this reason, she would advise setting the bar low at the beginning. “I wouldn’t recommend standing in the street giving [out] free chocolates – start with something in your comfort zone, maybe just smiling at someone in the street, or talking nicely to shop assistants.” Simply complimenting people she encountered turned out to be one of the easiest, and most warmly received, acts of kindness.

Ultimately, she hopes that her book will help remind us all that sometimes being kind can be a reward in and of itself. “That’s the view I’d like to change; that there doesn’t always have to be ulterior motive. You can be kind just for the sake of being nice.”

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