July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
NIPUN MEHTA You know, this guy came up to me one time and he says, I want to talk to you about, about generosity and kindness. And we were at a cafe. We were having lunch. And he says, “You know, I know about giving, but I don’t know about receiving. And what are your tips for receiving?” You know, this guy is a very affluent sort of philanthropist guy. So we start talking and at the end of the meal, it’s time to pay the check. And he’s like, “No, no, you can’t pay.” And I said, “No, no, you can’t pay. Let me do it.”
So what we decided to do was I said, “I’ll pay for this table, but you pay for a random table.” And so he calls the waitress over and he starts to have a conversation. And he says, “You know, I’d like to pay for another table.” And the first thing is the waitress looks at us like, “Why? You know, what’s going on here? And then he says, look, I just wanna make somebody’s day. And so this woman then says, “OK, fine, I get this. OK? Who?” So somehow he picked a table and this woman now has to go in. And, you know, our waitress, her name was Mandy, goes to the table. And Mandy comes back with this incredible joy. We’re like, “What happened? How was it?” And she’s like, “Oh, it was. It was amazing. They looked at me and they’re like, “Wow, do you guys do this here all the time as we’re not from here.” And she was no longer just our waitress. She was our compatriot in goodness, you know. And at the end of that incredible interaction, I looked at my friend and I said, “You know, were you giving?” Because he did give right, he provided financial capital. Or were you receiving? And it was so clear with a beaming smile on his face that he was receiving.
DACHER KELTNER Back in the 90s, Nipun Mehta led a group of volunteers in Silicon Valley to use their tech savvy to help others—- without any specifics about what they’d get in return. The movement led to Service Space, a group now helping millions worldwide do daily acts of kindness and generosity.
As our Happiness Guinea Pig today, Nipun tried a practice that speaks to one of his most deeply held beliefs: that kindness brings joy to the giver just as much as the receiver.
Nipun, it’s always great to be with you, thanks for being on The Science of Happiness.
NIPUN MEHTA What a joy to be here. Thank you, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER Tell us about Service Space.
NIPUN MEHTA So the way we started was by building websites for nonprofits. So we went to a homeless shelter and we said, we can’t do what you’re doing, but can we help you with something else?
And it was great because they initially at that time, they didn’t even know what the website was, you know? Say they were like, okay, what do you need? And, you know, I remember the woman at the shelter, she gave me a screwdriver and she says, here’s my computer. You can put whatever you want in it. And I was like, we’ll do that from home. And they were like, what kind of volunteering is that? And so we told our friends about it and it became this counterculture underground movement in the Silicon Valley initially, and it spread all around the world.
DACHER KELTNER So Nipun, it’s not random then that as our happiness guinea pig, you chose one of my favorite of our practices, which is the random acts of kindness practice. Could you walk us through how you do that, what the five steps are?
NIPUN MEHTA The practice here was to do five acts of kindness in one day, which is great. So the steps of the practice is, you wake up and you say, “Today, I’m going to do five acts of kindness,” you know? And that’s just the orientation with which you meet all your day’s actions.
DACHER KELTNER So it’s just doing five practices of kindness.
NIPUN MEHTA It’s just doing five acts of kindness.
DACHER KELNTER How long did it take you?
NIPUN MEHTA Well, I mean, each act of kindness by itself is just a couple of minutes. But its ripple effect is long. Yeah. So it stays inside your heart and it changes, I’m sure it changes your biochemistry. Yeah. Well we know that I usually quote you.
DACHER KELTNER Mention the old vagus nerve, and how it’s activated by kindness! No, it’s fundamental.
NIPUN MEHTA But it’s kind of fun to go out on the streets and or to just hold your day in the light of, “Well I’m going to do acts of kindness today.”
DACHER KELTNER So what did you do?
NIPUN MEHTA I always keep small things in my in my pocket. And so I have these small little heart pins. And so on this particular day, one of my neighbor’s kids was walking through and I just kind of ran into her and, you know, you hold your hand up and she gives you high fives. Get excited by jumping. And so I was just kind of just taking like 30 seconds. And at the end, I gave her a little heart pin. So that was great. A little later in the day I was out at the store. And I you know, I was just at the checkout and instead of just saying thank you to the cashier, I asked her her name. And and then, you know, when you say, “Thank you, Helen.” It sounds a lot different than, “Thank you.” Yeah. And it just kind of brought a smile on her face. And that’s a tough job. You know, you’re like you’re you’re doing the same thing again and again and everyone’s feeling entitled to their products. And they’re using, you know, it’s like you’re not really seeing this as a person with their own journey because you’re sort of in a rush you know, on your way to something else. So, yeah, I think that was meaningful.
DACHER KELTNER You know, and when we go to the science of kindness, there’s so much kindness in these subtle acts of like how you use your voice, how you make eye contact. You know, we know scientifically when you make eye contact, you actually you sort of elicit oxytocin release in other people. Like even using somebody’s name. When you did these five practices of kindness, what were some of your favorite reactions that you got?
NIPUN MEHTA I was actually at a school and we were talking about kindness and how we can all do small acts of kindness. And it creates an outer ripple effect, but also an inner ripple effect. And at the end, they gave me bouquets and, you know, it was like this whole process. And it was multiple bouquets. And there’s no way I’m going to need multiple bouquets of flowers. And so I opened it up and I said, you know, I asked the kids to go out and thank somebody in the school. Like, it could be a janitor, it could be somebody in the in the kitchen staff, it could be a fellow student, it could be a teacher. And the context was there. And so they all lined up and I looked each person in the eye. No, I didn’t have the oxytocin view, but I just cared. And so we I would look them in the eye and I would say, thank you for doing this act of kindness. And I would give each one a flower. They even brought more flowers because there were a lot more kids. And by the end of the line, this one girl. This is a true story. I mean, this one girl comes back with tears in her eyes and she says, “You know, can I get another flower?” That she tapped into that goodness in herself that felt so meaningful. And she says, “Can I do it again?” And that’s very resonant with my own experience. You know, I can’t stop doing kindness. I mean, no one can. If you really started doing that, you just you’re like, “Why? Why would you not be kind all the time?” Like, it’s just the way to be.
DACHER KELTNER It is.
NIPUN MEHTA But I but I learned that from from these kids, you know. So they’re they’re very much closer to that core than sometimes adults.
I would recommend all listeners to go appreciate a bus driver. And then ask them how many times has this happened to them in their life? Yeah. And they’ll be like the first time. And you’re like, what kind of a world are we creating where, you, no one has appreciated a bus driver that’s been giving rides to everybody for decades, right?” And so you’re like, wow.
DACHER KELTNER So what do you think that says about how we typically live our lives, and how might this practice help us change that?
NIPUN MEHTA So usually our day’s actions are very oriented towards me. What am I going to do? What am I going to get? You open each door and you kind of you go in as a consumer and you say, what am I going to take from this? What am I going to get from this? Right. But here are the practices to actually turn it around and say, I’m going to be a contributor. And so you open each door and you say, how can I contribute? How can I give? And as you start doing that and you say, “OK, well, I was just act number one and asked number two.” And by the time you get to, you know, four or five, you start realizing, “Wow, maybe I can just do that all day.” Like there’s a kind of internal momentum that is built, and that becomes very powerful. And then the invitation to yourself, the unspoken sort of invitation, is, “Why don’t I do this every day? You know, why am I not like this every hour?” Just because you’re opening a door and saying, what can I contribute doesn’t mean you’re not going to get anything. You’re going to get a lot. Yeah. And so it can potentially change your life.
DACHER KELTNER What strikes you about the meaning of kindness as you’ve done your travels and your work?
NIPUN MEHTA We really have to learn to not keep track of how much we’re giving and receiving. If I give you financial capital, I’m saying, “Okay, you’re going to bring me back financial capital.” But you know, you might give apples and you might get oranges in return. And that actually, it’s just not about the oranges and apples. It’s actually about the relationships that’s built because of that whole process. That does something to you, that changes the world
The way I think about it, I think we give then we learn that in giving we are receiving and then ultimately we stop keeping track of how much we’re giving and how much we’re receiving. I think of it as dancing, you know. So give, receive, and dance.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, that’s really well put. What are some personal experiences that shaped this perspective on kindness?
NIPUN MEHTA In 2005, 2004, I got married and my wife. We sold everything we had and put a few boxes at my parents’ house. Took a one-way ticket, went to the guy on the Gandhi Ashram and we said we’re going to walk south, do acts of kindness on the way home and eat whatever food is offered and sleep wherever places offered.
DACHER KELTNER How long did you do that?
NIPUN MEHTA So we did it for a thousand kilometer.
DACHER KELTNER Oh, my God.And were there particular moments or families that you visited that really stay with you?
NIPUN MEHTA We were walking through this area where there was a well, you know, very few people, very rural. Water was really hard to come by. And this is probably about 120 degrees heat. And so you’re you’re wondering, you know, there’s so many question marks going through your mind. Yeah. And, you know, from a distance, we see this woman. And she’s like this old grandma. And she calls us in and she kind of waves us saying she thinks that isn’t who she is, as you must be thirsty. And I was like, yeah, we are thirsty. And so she brought us water in this half broken pot. And it was really powerful because later I learned that it took her four hours to go get that water. And so we received that water.
People would borrow food to feed us. And we were just confronted with that kind of generosity. And you’re just like, wow, I’m you know, maybe I’ll practice that tomorrow in a deeper way. Yeah. And so we were just so inspired by all these people along the way. And I think I would say the core lesson I was left with was initially sometimes many times I would say, well, you know, gosh, that guy really didn’t need to be mean like that. Yeah. And I would say, “Why isn’t the world a little kinder?” And I think by the end of the pilgrimage, the question that I was holding for myself was not why isn’t the world a little kinder? How can I be a little kinder for the world?
DACHER KELTNER How do you take that kind of radical experience and then find it in your life today? Like on a daily basis, how would you tell your friends, like, if you can’t do the thousand kilometre pilgrimage, what do you do today?
NIPUN MEHTA I think the real point of it was that you learn to be the change. You realize that no matter what the context, you can practice love. You can be kind. You can be generous. Yeah. And I think there’s this narrative that generosity is a luxury sport. And hello,it’s our human right to be kind and to be loving. And I mean you don’t need material things to do that.
And so like for example, I’ve been married what now 14 years. And one of my practices is every single morning, my wife loves tea to wake her up, and I make her Indian chai. And no matter when she wakes up, she’s got it. You know, some of the years she’s had jobs where it’s like she’s super early out the door at like 5:30 AM. and I wake up and I’ll make it. And it sounds like a chore. But actually it’s it’s the most amazing thing. I did it this morning.
DACHER KELTNER All right. I always feel that the work that you’re doing and the degree of kindness you’re promoting in the world just exudes into me. And I’m really grateful to be in conversation with you, to be your friend and for you to be on the show. Thank you so much.
NIPUN MEHTA Thank you, Dacher. The feeling is very mutual.
DACHER KELTNER It’s all too clear today that hatred can spread across our social networks, whether that’s online or in real life. But can kindness be just as contagious as cruelty?
JAMIL JAKI We had the intuition that conformity could just as easily be a force for positive behaviors, things like kindness and empathy.
DACHER KELTNER Kindness expert Jamil Zaki talks about his experiment exploring why we act the way the ways we do.
JAMIL JAKI And in order to meet that goal, they do what other people around them do. They feel what other people around them feel. They think what other people around them think. And we know that conformity can be a really destructive force. I mean, you think about people who become politically polarized and hateful because others around them are. We see people around us acting kindly, then maybe we might be inspired to do so as well.
DACHER KELNTER Jamil tested this out. He gave a group of people repeated opportunities to donate real money to a charity. But before donating, they saw what they believed was the average amount donated by 100 people before them. Those numbers were all made up.
JAMIL JAKI We wanted to manipulate whether they believed that they lived in a caring and kind or indifferent and stingy world. What we found was that people conformed. If they believe that others around them were acting kindly and generously, they did too. And if they believed that others were mostly indifferent, they acted indifferently as well.
DACHER KELTNER Participants then read short vignettes about homeless people’s lives, and they saw data about how much empathy other participants felt afterwards. People in this part of the study only knew how much empathy others felt towards homeless people, nothing was said about donating money.
JAMIL JAKI But then participants had a chance to donate to a local homeless shelter and all of those donations were real.
DACHER KELTER When people thought others felt more empathy toward homeless people, they were more likely to feel more empathy themselves. And they were more likely to donate more money.
JAMIL JAKI So this suggests to us that we don’t just imitate people’s kind behavior. We actually kind of catch their feelings about other people, their sense of care for others. And that in turn drives us to be more generous and to be kinder.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the Random Acts of Kindness practice, or want to check out other practices to boost kindness, connection and happiness in your own life, visit, ggia.berkeley.edu. Then tell us how it went by using the hashtag #happinesspod’ or emailing us at email@example.com.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
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Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.