Scroll down for a transcription of this episode.
Join our limited newsletter The Science of Habits to get curated, science-backed tips to help make your New Years resolution stick in 2024.
This week, we’re focusing on doing good for others, and we’ve turned to someone who cheers people up for a living. Dana Merwin is a professional clown and performer based in San Francisco. For our show, she tried a practice where she performed three acts of kindness a day for the people in her life. She reflects on how simple, kind gestures can pave the way for deep and valuable connections, and that being kind to others ultimately makes us feel good as well. We also hear from psychologist David Cregg about how doing good things for others improves our sense of social connection, purpose in life, and can even help us live longer and healthier lives.
- Write down or think about three acts of kindness you could perform the next day.
- Do three kind acts for people in your life.
- At the end of the day, reflect on how these experiences make you feel.
Dana Merwin is a progressional clown and performer based in San Francisco.
Learn about Dana’s Work: https://tinyurl.com/bd6ew95a
Follow Dana on Instagram: https://tinyurl.com/dspstzrk
David Cregg is a clinical psychologist at South Texas Veterans Health Care System whose research specializes in positive psychology.
Follow David on Google Scholar: https://tinyurl.com/ajay6n6a
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Do You Underestimate the Impact of Being Kind? https://tinyurl.com/583hwar9
Just One Thing: Be Kind to Yourself by Being Kind to Others: https://tinyurl.com/4dsf7bn2
Do We Have an Instinctive Urge to Be Kind? https://tinyurl.com/y5fabnj3
Can Helping Others Help You Find Meaning in Life? https://tinyurl.com/yc4zhw9w
Three Strategies for Bringing More Kindness into Your Life: https://tinyurl.com/22cx7w9f
More Resources on Doing Good Things For Others:
BBC - What we do and don’t know about kindness: https://tinyurl.com/na6jvr9e
Harvard: Lending a helping hand: https://tinyurl.com/yckf4759
UCL: 10 benefits of helping others: https://tinyurl.com/4wn5syhh
Mayo Health Clinic: The art of kindness: https://tinyurl.com/5ah5dahc
What kind action have you done for others recently? Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/873v67ah
Statement on the Violence in Gaza
Like many of you, our listeners, we at The Science of Happiness are deeply distressed by the Hamas attacks on civilians in Israel on October 7, 2023, and at the Israeli government’s continued violence in Gaza.
We approach matters of politics and war through the lens of happiness, which suggests that all people have a right to happiness, one that is damaged in generational ways by state-sponsored violence, as well as the denial of basic rights.
Grounded in this, we condemn the Hamas attacks which killed at least 846 civilians, according to the most recent numbers released by Israeli police, and took 239 hostages, as crimes against humanity.
We also condemn the continuing violence of the Israeli state and military, which, at the time of this recording, have killed over 11,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children. We believe the Israeli military’s targeting of hospitals, civilians, and the blockade on food, water, and medical supplies, are crimes against humanity.
Research shows a core principle of well-being is understanding our common humanity, that everyone should have the chance to pursue a life of true happiness – that’s central to our work at Science of Happiness.
So we join the international call for an immediate ceasefire, the safe release of all hostages and arbitrarily detained Palestinians, and an end to the blockade of the Gaza strip. in place since 2005 denies Palestinians basic human needs, like adequate water, and basic human rights, like self-determination and to move freely to live a fulfilling life.
We express our deep concern that the enduring displacement of Palestinians, and violence by all parties, will cause deep trauma for generations to come, robbing everyone the chance to pursue a life of true happiness, which is at the center of our work at The Science of Happiness.
Dacher Keltner: Hi this Dacher Keltner, welcome to Science of Happiness. This week’s episode is about the science behind kindness to others. But first we want to share a message from our team at The Science of Happiness.
We approach matters of politics and war through the lens of happiness, which suggests that all people have a right to happiness.
Grounded in this, we condemn the Hamas attacks which killed at least 846 civilians, and took 239 hostages, according to the most recent numbers released by Israeli police.
We also condemn the continuing violence of the Israeli state and military, which, at the time of this recording, have killed at least 11,470 Palestinian civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, and we find the Israeli military’s targeting of hospitals, civilians, and the blockade on food, water, and medical supplies, reprehensible.
Research shows a core principle of well-being is understanding our common humanity, that everyone should have the chance to pursue a life of true happiness – that’s central to our work at Science of Happiness.
So we join the international call for an immediate ceasefire, the safe release of all hostages and arbitrarily detained Palestinians, and an end to the blockade of the Gaza strip.
Dana Merwin: I think at the root level that humans are kind and are meant to be together and to be in communion and that there are innate feelings to want to love and be loved and to be seen and to see.
Doing good feels good. Feeling good feels good.
But those simple truths get so buried by so many things, like every day decisions and choices. Because you can really get broken into the patterns and it’s hard sometimes to be creative and, and reinvent, everyday life, you know, everyday drama. But I think there’s some universal things that do make us laugh and do bring us joy.
Like, whether it’s with friends or strangers, like there is love in seeing someone light up.
And so then the question is how do we live a life of kindness?
You know there is such joy in that discovery.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Our guest this week is Dana Merwin, a clown and improv performer in the Bay Area who knows what it takes to work and play with others.
For one week, Dana made sure to perform three nice things each day for other people.
Lots of studies show that doing good deeds for other people isn’t just a good thing to do but it also has psychological and health benefits. It can boost self-confidence and deepen a sense of meaning, as well as helping people feel socially connected.
We’ll hear about her experience, and also from Dr. David Cregg. He’s a psychologist who has studied the science of kindness, and has used it to guide his own work, with veterans who suffer from some really difficult mental health challenges.
David Cregg: We had people who reported moderate to severe levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, and when they did random acts of kindness for five weeks, they showed a significant improvement in their symptoms. People seem to just be happier and flourishing in their life from doing these acts of kindness.
Dacher Keltner: More kindness - right after this message.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to the Science of Happiness. Today we’re focusing on the benefits of kindness and how doing simple acts for others can have a profoundly positive effect on our own state of mind.
Our guest today is Dana Merwin, a professional clown and live performer based in San Francisco who has been entertaining audiences for nearly two decades. She joins after trying a practice where she performed three acts of kindness a day for other people.
Literally hundreds of studies show that there’s a profound connection between doing good for others—which often activates dopamine release and a sense of pleasure—with better health and happiness.
So we asked Dana to try this practice out in her own life.
Thanks for joining us, Dana.
Dana Merwin: Hey, thanks for having me.
Dacher Keltner: You tried this practice for the Science of Happiness based on a study from these Polish researchers where you journal the night before, about performing three acts of kindness and then the next day you take a shot at doing those three acts of kindness. How did it go?
Dana Merwin: So I’d say day one, I made the list, but because I was on the road, it already put a spin on it for me that made me feel out of sorts. Because I’m like, I don’t know what each day is going to be in the seven day period. It wasn’t a normal day. I was often either going to be on the road with my partner or at a camp out with people that I, you know, maybe knew, but didn’t know well, so, day one, I’d say I made the list.
Dacher Keltner: What was on your list? Like, three acts of kindness.
Dana Merwin: Compliments came up fairly quickly. And not in just a, like, pithy way or, you know, that like, how can they be genuine and what felt genuine to me? Not just like, cool hat, you know?
Dacher Keltner: So. You got this list. You got this list. So how’d it go?
Dana Merwin: Yeah. It didn’t go great. Like every day I would put three things. You know, I’d even struggle with thinking of those. It felt like such a task, you know, like,homework. And you know, this pressure would mount like halfway through the day I would be like. Oh, this isn’t, these aren’t happening or like I had a list to call a relative, you know, and the phone was busy and I’d get like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m failing at the list.” Like, “Call Aunt Mona,” was on the list for give or take all seven days and it eventually did happen and I’m so happy that specific one drove me because there were a lot of things attached to that call and maybe why I was not doing that.
Dacher Keltner: So what did you do? How did you, did you shift strategies or did you, did you just stick with it?
Dana Merwin: I shifted.
Dacher Keltner: Good.
Dana Merwin: Yeah. Yeah. I was like, this isn’t working and that’s okay. And I thought about what the assignment was and I was like. Okay. It’s really just being a seed and it’s really like looking through the lens of it throughout the day and I found that more exciting than checking off a list.
So then, having bigger buckets of like, give genuine deep authentic compliments like having that and then encountering them organically with an acquaintance or with a new interaction became easier and lighter.
Dacher Keltner: So tell us an example of a genuine compliment.
Dana Merwin: So at the end of this kind of camp out, retreat with some folks, there was a person that I had really enjoyed being around in group situations and so at the end of the at the end we were saying our goodbyes, you know, and it’s easy to just like slap backs and like yeah say, you know Goodbye. See you later. This was great, right? And then because of this practice I really paused and I said, you know, “Eli, you have been a real light in groups this weekend, and you’re such a gifted storyteller. And I really enjoyed being around you.”
Dacher Keltner: I see you almost tearing up as you think about this.
Dana Merwin: Yeah. you know, it’s vulnerable for me to like to connect, it’s, it’s vulnerable, like us sitting here, right? Like, Looking at each other is like a practice in itself.
Dacher Keltner: Totally, yeah.
Dana Merwin: So yeah, to take that breath, and we have rituals of saying goodbye in different cultures, and ours is usually often, you know, quick and see you later, and but yeah, it felt, it felt important for that moment and that person. To thank them and to give them that compliment.
Dacher Keltner: What a wonderful example.
Dana Merwin: And they received it. I could see, you know, the person in that case, Eli, you know, stopped and said, thank you. Yeah. That means a lot. Yeah. Like, they verbalized it. Not everyone can do that. Some people are gonna like give you a smile, give you a hug, you know, whatever their way of receiving it is.
Dacher Keltner: Well, that’s where humans get really interesting because we know when you practice kindness, right? There’s an area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, and it’s the dopamine circuit which gives you pleasure. And it’s really cool that producing acts of kindness makes you feel good. It activates dopamine release, you know, there’s this study from Chicago showing that we underestimate how much our acts of kindness impact other people’s well being, how much they lift them up.
It’s one of my favorite findings in the kindness literature that you’re pointing to Dana with your examples is just the spreading of kindness. And Christopherson Fowler did this research where if you give something to somebody else, they’re more likely to give to the next person, even if you’re not there and so on.
Dana Merwin: The hardest thing, you know, with shelter in place was we lost those connections.
We lost those moments of spontaneity of misconnections of the magic that comes with just human chemistry. Like, whether it’s, you know, with friends or strangers, like, there is love in, in seeing someone light up. And no matter how it lasts, I feel love from that.
Dacher Keltner: I love your statement Dana, of loving strangers and, you know, there’s really cool research coming out of Berkeley that, you know, just striking up conversations with strangers, as long as it’s safe, obviously. And, you know, you’re in the right context. It brings you all these joys. It opens you up to slices of humanity that you wouldn’t, we wouldn’t know were there. I’m curious, Dana, in your list of kind things to do, you know, one was call Aunt Mona, and I think we all have a relative we really want to connect more to and be kind to. But it seemed like it was hard to get to that call. On the trip, took a while and I’m just curious, what was the call like?
Dana Merwin: So Aunt Mona is my great aunt. The last of the sisters, the youngest of the sisters at a ripe age of 89. She had lost her sister and I had lost this person who was very deep and caring with me and, yet there was this hardship and fear of what it would be like.
Dacher Keltner: What was the call like?
Dana Merwin: Well when she picked up the phone the first thing she said, I said, “Hi, this is Dana,” and she said, “Oh It must be the end of the world.”
And then she was like, “It’s so great to hear from you.” And we talked for like an hour. We talked for an hour and I didn’t lead with, you know, talking about Aunt Mary and talking about the death.
And she said, you know, “She used to call me every day. We had a time everyday. We would talk to each other.” And all three sisters had that. And she’s like, you know, I miss her so much because we would talk. So now I said to her in that moment of also keeping this practice, I said, I can’t be, obviously I can’t be Aunt Mary. I will never be your sister in that relationship. I said, but if you ever want to call me at the same time you would call her. If you want to call me, I would love that. And she said, “what’s your number?” And so she wrote down my number.
It feels good to feel good and make others feel good. And, and yeah, sometimes it takes energy, right?
But it’s not hard. Like that doesn’t take a lot of effort to be silly and to be playful. And, and that doesn’t mean you have to be, you know, trained. It can be when your partner walks in and you play a song that you think they’d love, or you put on the candle, you do something that like atmospherically changes the thing. And that feels good. Whatever feels good to you. There’s no, you know, script.
Dacher Keltner: Well you’ve just summarized the science of happiness and kindness in particular of finding what lights you up, let it ripple and and do it in a way that’s kind to yourself That’s about the depth of the wisdom from science too. So, thank you.
Dana Merwin: Sweet. I got it, right.
Dacher Keltner: In the end we give an A+.
Dana Merwin: Oh sweet, thank you so much!
Dacher Keltner: Thank you.
Up next, we’ll learn more about the science of kindness, why it’s good for you, and interesting ways this science is being applied. But first, a short break.
Hey everyone, it’s Dacher. Studies show that only 8% of Americans who make a New Year’s resolution actually keep it all year.
So let’s try something new this year – together. For our first episode in 2024, we’re breaking down the science of making new habits stick.
And I want to invite you to get more involved with our community here at The Science of Happiness and work with us to make your new year’s resolution a successful one.
We’re launching a limited newsletter. It’s totally free, and when you sign up, we’ll send you advice each week for the first 6 weeks of the new year, all grounded in science and curated to help you stay on track — or get back on track if you ever slip up, which we all do!
We know from the literature that having a sense of community, and getting a little encouragement when you need it can go a long way. So please join us.
Go to G-G-S-C dot berkeley dot E-D-U slash podcasts slash habits, to sign up. We’ve also got a link in our show notes.
And if you’d like – you can upload a voice memo telling us what your 2024 resolution is, and we might play it on the show!
Go to G-G-S-C dot berkeley dot E-D-U slash podcasts slash habits to sign up, and let us cheer you on in 2024.
Welcome back to the Science of Happiness. This is Dacher, and we’re talking about the power of good deeds today, and to learn more we reached out to an expert on this topic, psychologist David Cregg.
David came to the study of kindness when he set out to understand how to best thrive and flourish in life.
David Cregg: What I kept coming across time and time again, paper after paper was that social connection really seems to be the key ingredient for a thriving life.
Dacher Keltner In one experiment, David and his team studied the effects of doing good for others on 122 people with depression and anxiety.
Some of them were assigned to cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s a conventional type of talk therapy where psychologists help patients challenge the basis of their negative feelings.
Others were instructed to perform three acts of kindness each day, for two days out of the week. And the results were striking.
David Cregg: Those who did the random acts of kindness showed a much greater degree of improvement for social connection than those who did the CBT techniques.
I did not expect that going in. I thought maybe it would do comparable to or a little bit worse than cognitive therapy for depression and anxiety. And I did not expect acts of kindness to do as well for treating depression, anxiety, and actually surpass that. We also found that those who did the random acts of kindness showed a greater degree of improvement for life satisfaction than those who did the cognitive therapy technique.
Dacher Keltner: These findings are striking, but also not entirely surprising. There’s a whole host of studies showing the benefits to good deeds.
David Cregg: People who are kind to others tend to report higher life satisfaction. They’re more satisfied with their lives. They tend to be more socially connected.
Dacher Keltner: And that makes sense. If you’re doing kind things for other people, people tend to appreciate that. And it really is a way to foster close relationships.
David Cregg: People who do kindness also tend to report a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. They feel like their lives are oriented towards something greater than themselves. And we know that there’s a host of psychological benefits with having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.
Dacher Keltner: And these benefits aren’t just psychological.
David Cregg: People who engage in kind actions or other forms of pro social behavior like volunteering, actually have a lower rate of mortality. So in other words, living longer in life. And we also found a research study showing that people who engage in kindness show lower blood pressure and even people with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, for example, doing these kind actions seem to over time lower the risk or the severity of those medical conditions.
Dacher Keltner: The causal mechanism of these benefits isn’t entirely clear, although David points to one interesting physical phenomenon.
David Cregg: At a more physiological level researchers have found that doing kind actions stimulates the release of this neurotransmitter known as oxytocin, which is involved in creating a sense of a social bond between people. And so when you engage in these kind of actions, you have this flood of oxytocin in your system, and that may facilitate a greater sense of connection with other people.
Dacher Keltner: David now uses some of these findings in his current role as a staff psychologist with the VA.
David Cregg: I work with veterans that have conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And we’ve actually started doing some of these kindness groups at the VA with veterans with these conditions, encouraging them to go out and volunteer and do acts of kindness.
Dacher Keltner: And the data shows that this intervention is making a real difference.
David Cregg: And I remember this individual told me that it felt so good to give back because this was an opportunity for them to get out and recover that sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
And the hope is that over time that will grow and lead into even an even bigger boost to their self esteem and sense of self worth. And eventually pursuing their goals for their lives in terms of returning to their occupations, et cetera.
The practical advice I would give for doing kind actions is, these can be as big or as small as you want them to be. So if you feel like you don’t have the time to do it. Or maybe you’re struggling with really severe depression and just doing small things like getting out of bed seems like a daunting task, I would say start small.
These don’t have to be big, pay it forward type actions. If you’ve seen that movie before with giving your car away to other people, it could just be something as small as telling someone in your life what you appreciate about them. And I think all of us, even when we’re in a really bad spot in life, can probably do something like that to get us started.
Dacher Keltner: On our next episode of The Science of Happiness we learn about how taking time to be curious can help us face life’s challenges.
Scott Shigeoka: Curiosity isn’t just about, you know, winning at trivia, it’s really soulful. It’s really an opportunity for connection and for transformation of not just an individual, but even entire communities or a society at large.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Our executive producer of audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Grey. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios and our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. Our executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.