Life & Culture

Is being nice good for you?

Gaby Koppel tests the theory that performing acts of kindness boosts your mental health


Gaby Koppel with her freshly baked challot which she handed out as gifts

I’m in love with a podcast that offers the secret of eternal youth. Well, nearly. Each week on BBC Radio 4’s Just One Thing, Dr Michael Mosley offers a top tip that is scientifically proven to improve wellbeing. But a recent episode has left me feeling conflicted.

Dr Mosley advised that small acts of kindness can improve your mental health and boost the immune system. Sounds like a win-win, but surely doing something altruistic for completely selfish reasons will cancel out the virtue. As a thought experiment — and because I do want to live for ever — I decide to try it out anyway.

I start early and small. On my morning run around Stoke Newington, I wave a cheery hello to everybody I pass. This takes more courage than I expected as, unlike my husband, I don’t often reach out to strangers. First up is a lady who is carrying a small terrier. She looks surprised, but after a slight hesitation beams back at me exuberantly. Overall, my greetings are a success. One man responds, “How are you?”, which I find ridiculously gratifying.

There is a roughly 70 per cent response, with the most receptive to this very modest kindness being older people, dog walkers and other runners who share my pain on this frosty morning. Young people, on the other hand, look at me as if I am completely mad. Nearer home in Stamford Hill, the Charedi people I greet barely respond, with the honourable exception of one neighbour. But that’s probably because I recently knocked on his door to give him a parcel that had been wrongly delivered to my house, so he already knows I am a good person.

Even though my app tells me I was no faster than usual, it felt as though I flew around. One round to Dr Mosley.

Later the same day I linger outside Manor House Tube station looking at my phone while also keeping an eye out for anyone who might need help with anything. Even though the Piccadilly line goes direct from here to Heathrow, it’s now the middle of the day and there aren’t many people around carrying heavy bags. No one seems to need my assistance. It is freezing so I take shelter in the station, and while I am there I strike gold. A mum arrives at the foot of a long flight of stairs with a heavy buggy, but she vigorously rejects my offer of assistance. I feel a bit sad. Eventually,  back at the top of the stairs, a young woman arrives with a very large suitcase. I help her take it down and she chirps, “Have a good day.” Progress! But it’s just one act of kindness in over an hour and, feeling like I am at risk of getting frostbite, I return home feeling a little deflated.

I’m still worried about the ethics of this so I call Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies. He tells me that the relevant phrase in the Haftarah is “treat your neighbour as yourself”, explaining: “Because you have self-love, because you value life, because you want to be happy, you want others to be. In Torah there’s no pretence that it’s selfless.” In fact, he assures me that the Torah rejects pure altruism, adding that while doing a kindness for selfish reasons isn’t ideal, it gets you to the right place in the end and Jews are commanded to be charitable.

He points out that the Hebrew word noten, meaning “to give”, is a palindrome, meaning it works backward as well as forwards. (In Hebrew, the vowels are taken out.) “So to give is to receive and makes you feel better,” he says. But with a scientist’s precision (he holds a PhD in theoretical physics), Zarum asks whether the positive impact comes from the act itself or the thanks we receive, which I cannot answer. Yet.

I am reminded of the late Lady Amélie Jakobovits, wife of former Chief Rabbi Immanuel, whose kindness was legendary. Her signature mitzvah was to bake loads of small challot each Friday and gift them to hospital patients or anybody who needed a boost. By now it is only Thursday, and I have a deadline to meet plus another problem — my challot will not be kosher enough for my religious neighbours.

Instead, I tour Dalston and Clapton on bus and foot giving out my mini challot to friends. This takes much longer than I had planned because everybody is surprisingly pleased to see me and invites me in, which is good for my self-esteem and relationships, even though I feel duty-bound to be honest with most of them about the fact that I’m doing this for an article. People don’t mind at all and seem to love chatting about it. But I get the same upswell of positive feelings after leaving a challah hidden behind a pot plant for somebody to find later, so maybe it is the act of giving itself that counts. It is also satisfying to be thanked because that too is a kindness that somebody is doing for me, and which I appreciate. But ultimately, and entirely unscientifically, it feels it is the giving itself and its planning that really makes me happy.

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