24 Hours of Kindness (The Science of…

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Why should you be nice? Our guest explores how small, daily acts of kindness can produce meaningful life changes.

Episode summary:

When you’re kind to someone, the positive impact doesn’t stop with them. In fact, the effect of your kind action can ricochet back to you by improving your physical health and outlook on life. This week’s episode is all about how kindness has the power to strengthen our sense of self within a larger community. Our guest Aaron Harvey is an activist and UC Berkeley alumni who performed five random acts of kindness in one day. He found that practicing kindness allowed him to develop deeper relationships with those around him and shifted the way he views his role in society. Later, we hear from Oliver Scott Curry, the Research Director at Kindlab, to learn about why humans are evolutionarily designed to be kind and how practicing kindness can positively affect our physical and mental state of being.

How to Do This Practice:

  1. Choose a day of the week to perform 5 random acts of kindness throughout that day.

  2. These acts don’t have to be big or small or even for the same person. Just aim to perform a variety of acts of kindness. This could include helping a friend with a chore or providing a meal to a person in need.

  3. After each act, write down what you did in at least one or two sentences and reflect on how it made you feel.

Learn more about this practice at Greater Good In Action:


Today’s guests:

Aaron Harvey is a UC Berkeley Underground Scholar alumnus and activist. After facing the possibility of life in prison, Aaron successfully proved his innocence due to a lack of evidence.

Learn more about Berkeley Underground Scholars: https://undergroundscholars.berkeley.edu/

Oliver Scott Curry is the Research Director for Kindlab at kindness.org. He uses scientific research to better understand topics like kindness, human morality and cooperation.

Learn more about Oliver and his work: https://www.oliverscottcurry.com/

Learn more about Kindlab: https://kindness.org/kindlab

Follow Oliver on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Oliver_S_Curry

Follow Oliver on Google Scholar: https://tinyurl.com/yc29nn62

Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:

Random Acts of Kindness: https://tinyurl.com/jxafbdm4

How to Start a Kindness Revolution: https://tinyurl.com/3fr68t6v

Three Strategies for Bringing More Kindness into Your Life: https://tinyurl.com/22cx7w9f

How Kindness Fits Into a Happy Life: https://tinyurl.com/h8mspz37

How to Be a Kindness Role Model for Your Kids: https://tinyurl.com/3cjkp785

Where Does Kindness Come From? https://tinyurl.com/hkv94anp

Is There an Altruism Gene? https://tinyurl.com/5n8r7eh5

More Resources on Kindness

MasterClass – How to Be Kind to Yourself: 5 Ways to Practice Kindness: https://tinyurl.com/ycx7uysu

The New York Times – The Unexpected Power of Random Acts of Kindness: https://tinyurl.com/ycxxd7af

TED Talk – Mark Kelly: How one act of kindness a day can change your life: https://tinyurl.com/u2n3t3s

Have you ever tried practicing random acts of kindness? Ever been the recipient of one? Email us at happinesspod@berkeley.edu or use the hashtag #happinesspod.

Help us share The Science of Happiness!

Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap


Aaron Harvey: You know, my first police stop, I think I was, like, 11. Or younger than that. I fit the description. They cuffed me, sat me on the sidewalk, for like 30 minutes, and then just let me go. And that was, like, my introduction to law enforcement. And then it just never stops. It just keeps getting worse and worse and happening more and more often as time goes on.

So it was me and 32 other individuals, the first time ever they used this law, Penal Code 182.5. They said that they had me documented as a gang-member because of multiple police stops in my community. And because I was documented, therefore, I could be held liable for any crimes committed by that gang, whether I had knowledge of it or not. They charged us with conspiracy to commit some shootings. They weren’t even trying to prove that I had anything to do with the shootings.

I spent eight months in county jail, on a $1.1 million bail, looking at 56-years-to-life.

Aaron Harvey: But I would have these conversations with my dad. I remember when I was incarcerated, I was about to sign a deal for 19 years. And I was telling him I was just tired. I’m tired of going back to court and tired of, you know, if I sign now for 19 years, I’ll be out and 47 years old. He said I’ve always told you, “Stand up for your rights.” And he was like, “You know, Malcolm and Martin and many others, like, stood up for their rights,” and they died because of it. But, because of their sacrifices, like, look at how many people were able to benefit from their sacrifice. And I’m not by no means comparing myself to them or others, but it’s the same mentality of, you have to pick up that baton and you have to continue to just push the needle forward.

Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner, this is The Science of Happiness.

Today we’re revisiting one of my favorite conversations with guest Aaron Harvey, he was a student and activist at UC Berkeley at the time of our interview.

Aaron faced the possibility of life in prison, but proved his innocence and was released because of lack of evidence.

For today’s show, Aaron tried a practice of engaging in five random acts of kindness throughout one day. This exercise has been shown to increase our own well-being, and it brings us a sense that we can make changes in the world.

Later in the show, we’ll learn what researchers can tell us about the science of kindness.

Oliver Scott Curry: Once upon a time it was difficult for evolution to explain why people were kind. Now the opposite is the case. We have a whole range of theories that explain why people are kind in different ways to different people.

Dacher Keltner: More after this break.

Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.

Today we’re looking at the science of kindness — what happens when we turn our attention away from ourselves, and towards the needs of others?

We’re revisiting a favorite episode from August of 2020 with guest Aaron Harvey.

Aaron spent eight months in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. For our show, he tried an exercise called Random Acts of Kindness — and it’s exactly what it sounds like, you just do nice things for others, even strangers, throughout one full day.

When we perform many small acts of kindness for others, studies show it does wonders for our health. We get hits of serotonin and dopamine in the moment, which are neurotransmitters that enable feelings of balance and curiosity about the world. Here’s part of our conversation.

Dacher Keltner: So when we asked you to try a science-tested practice to bring more happiness in your life, you chose, “Random Acts of Kindness,” where you perform five kind acts all in one day. Why did you choose this practice?

Aaron Harvey: My father was always the type of individual that was like, “It’s not necessarily about what you’re kind of doing for yourself, but why are you doing it? You were put on this planet to be like a blessing to other people. And how other people are going to benefit from your sacrifice or from, like, your god-given abilities?”

We always have people from the church either living at the house or relatives living at the house, or volunteering our time to go, I don’t know, put in irrigation or paint a wall or put on a new roof set at somebody’s house in the community. So he taught us about trade skills, but he also taught us the principles of giving back.

Dacher Keltner: Wow. So for this Random Acts of Kindness practice, you did five kind acts in one day and then wrote about it. How did it go?

Aaron Harvey: It definitely felt weird in the beginning. So, I really just started off with, like, calling my mom, saying, “Hey, do you want some breakfast?” I was like “This is stupid,” right? “What am I doing?” And I never made it to my mom to get her breakfast because I went to Starbucks and it was, like, this guy hanging outside of Starbucks. And I was like, “Hey brother. You want something from Starbucks?” And he was like, “I actually I do.” I’m like, alright, there you go.

So I ended up buying him the Starbucks, and as I was handing him, he got, like, a meal or whatnot and a coffee. I was walking away and then something dawned on me. Like, no, we’re not doing it this way. You’re not going to do it this way.

So, I went back to the guy, right. And, I was like “Hey, my name is Aaron. I’m sorry. You’re not just some charity case. You know, me just seeing you in need and me just giving you things and walking off like, what’s your name?”

He told me his name was Ronald. I’m like, “Alright, brother.” You know, “You live around here? Yada yada yada. And he’s like, “Actually, I’m trying to move into my apartment today.” And I was like, “Oh, for sure, I’ll help you.”

Dacher Keltner: What about your mom?

Aaron Harvey: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying, I never made it to my mom, right.

Aaron Harvey: So I ended up helping this guy moving to his apartment in his truck. So we’re talking and talking and talking.

Aaron Harvey: And from leaving from him, I get a phone call from one of my good friends and now he’s on the freeway, tire busted. And I’m like, “Bro, c’mon man, call AAA. I’m tired. I just moved this dude’s whole house.” But then again, I’m like, oh, this is like three. It’s got to be like three or four.

Dacher Keltner: Definitely, you’re in bonus points right now!

Aaron Harvey: I go up to the freeway, you know, help him change his tire, whatever the case may be. And then I was like, “And let me fill up your gas tank.”

Dacher Keltner: Oh, man.

Aaron Harvey: We went, we fill up the gas tank and then me and him, we’re actually talking about the five acts of kindness and one thing we were, like, kind of sharing with each other was, you know it’s cool that you’re kind of doing this or whatnot, but he was like, “Man, to be honest with you, as long as I’ve known you, like, you go through things, but you always seem to come out of things. And I believe it’s because you’re always doing it for people. You’re always taken care of because you’re always taking care of people.”

And that and that right there, I’ve kind of almost had those thoughts, but I’ve never really sat with that thought, right, because I’ve never even looked at it that way. Like, I’m not doing this so I can be this, right. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. But we kind of sat and we talked about that and that made me, kind of, look at the look at my life more of a glass-half-full and not like all these things are just constantly happening to me? Like, why am “I constantly going through struggles and things like that?” But it’s like, “Well, you always are coming out of them.”

Dacher Keltner: Did you do the part of the exercise where you write about what it was like and how you reflected on it?

Aaron Harvey: So my reflections came at the end of the day when I was sitting and talking with my friend.

Dacher Keltner: And what ran through your mind?

Aaron Harvey: When Ronald, when I bought him the Starbucks — of like, I can’t go into a grocery store, a food place, and if there’s somebody outside that’s hungry, like, I can’t just walk in, you know. I have to buy a meal. But I never take the time to actually get to know that person or to, like, talk to them. Or, you know, I’m just more like, “Hey brother, you need something?” And if they say, “No”, I’m like, “You sure?” “No.” “Okay,” and then I’m gone. Or if they do want something, I like “Go on and order whatever you want. I got you.”

I was like doing, like “good,” quote-unquote. I also felt like I was still doing people a disservice by not getting to know their names, getting to hear their stories and things like that.

I never take the time to actually get to know, like that is a whole person. That’s not just some charity case, right? And by getting to know a person, even if it’s just for like two minutes, right, there’s a lot more impact that you can have on their life to where you might be able to put them in a position to where they don’t have to stand outside that store and ask for money or food anymore. And I understand that not every time I’ll even have time to do that. But if you have the time, I think you should take the time to do that.

And, like, now I got his number. He lives around the corner from my mom. You know, so like now he’s even connected to a larger community. And I feel like that was the act of kindness, not the actual buying of the Starbucks.

Dacher Keltner: You know, the studies on this, Sonja Lyubomirsky has done work, and that’s why we have this practice is, if you can do five of these things in one day, you feel happier, less depressed. You function better at work. There’s a lot of other work on just, you know, when you practice kindness, it’s good for your body. You feel stronger. What did you notice in your own experience?

Aaron Harvey: Doing these things almost kind of pains me, and I think that’s probably why I never really got to know people, right. That I would be doing things for, because to see people in need, to see people hurting actually kind of hurts me. The fact that people are even having to ask for basic — what I feel like are, like, human rights, necessities: food, water, housing, it just shows that we’re, like, in a failed state.

That doesn’t bring me happiness, right? But what does bring me happiness, was the fact of, like, I helped him move into his apartment. Like he just moved into this apartment. And, the look on his face and how excited he was about this apartment, and let me know or I’m just assuming this was the first time he has something of his own, right? Or just like a bed of his own. That made me happy because that brought him some type of peace, that brought him some type of joy, of accomplishment, of that he was, kind of, like, moving up in the ladder of life, right. Those are the types of things that bring me happiness.

Dacher Keltner: I have to ask you, Aaron, you know, you are cuffed at 11. 15 years later, you’re wrongfully convicted and you spend eight months in jail and you grew up in a culture of a certain kind of kindness. You want to pursue kindness. How does this experience with so much brutality and lack of kindness frame how you think about practicing kindness?

Aaron Harvey: I feel like I have every right to, like, hate people, or even hate white people. But I would have these conversations with my dad of like, you know, “I hate them or I hate, you know, what I mean.” And he’d be like, “Yeah okay, alright, I understand that. But, what you don’t understand, or even what they don’t understand, is it’s a system that is being perpetuated. The individual might be good in nature, but let’s just say their job may require them to do things that are immoral. So is it that person or is it the system that we need to focus on? Because you could easily change that person, but that system is still there. So that was like a restructuring of how I was viewing the world.

And now, so, I’m thinking on the broader spectrum of, if you really are tired of these things, then you should be focused on the things that are allowing it to continue and try to dismantle those and not people.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. It’s interesting, there’s a whole social psychology research showing that, you know, Western Europeans don’t think in terms of systems, you know, especially in the United States. They think in terms of individuals, and that misleads us. So, really insightful. What sort of wisdom would you give to us to be thinking about how to cultivate kindness?

Aaron Harvey: You got to really be intentional about stepping out of yourself, for a second. You spoke on it earlier about Western Europeans and just like really America, right? Well, the United States of America, should I say. It just has this real individualistic, kind of like culture or mindset. “As long as I’m doing okay, then everything’s okay.”

I always challenge my friends, or when I’m speaking to people – you should never go 24 hours without doing something for someone who can’t repay you. We walk by things every day. Like we step over unhoused people every day, right? And it’s, kind of, just become normalized. And you should never go a day. There’s going to be something that’s going to come across you every day, if not multiple things that are going to come across you every day, and you should lend a hand. And if you’re not, you’re kind of like not just doing that individual a disservice, but you’re ultimately doing yourself a disservice as well.

Dacher Keltner: Well, I am really grateful for your time Aaron, so thanks so much for joining us on the show.

Aaron Harvey: Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

Dacher Keltner: Scientists believe that we evolved to be kind to the people around us; it helped our species cooperate and thrive.

Oliver Scott Curry: It’s relatively straightforward to explain why people are kind to their family members and why they’re kind to their friends. It’s a bit more puzzling to explain why they’re kind to strangers, but we have some explanations for that too.

Dacher Keltner: More on the science, after this break.

Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re looking at the science of kindness.

Practicing kindness lowers blood pressure and cortisol, the stress hormone, and helps reduce depression and anxiety. And over time, being kind to others boosts our well-being, self-esteem and even life expectancy.

Oliver Scott Curry: Once upon a time it was difficult for evolution to explain why people were kind. Now the opposite is the case. We have a whole range of theories that explain why people are kind in different ways to different people.

Dacher Keltner: Oliver Scott Curry is the Research Director at Kindness.org, a group that uses scientific studies to inspire kindness.

Oliver Scott Curry: We’d found a couple of dozen experiments where, we found, sure enough that helping did indeed make you happy. People reported having greater life satisfaction.

Dacher Keltner: Oliver’s team noted that none of these studies specified the recipient of these acts.

Oliver Scott Curry: So we had a study where we had people either help someone close to them like a family or a family member or friend, or someone distant like a stranger.

Dacher Keltner: They also had a group do kind acts for themselves. And a last just observed kindness in others.

Oliver Scott Curry: And what we found somewhat to our surprise was although helping, in general, made people happier than not helping, it didn’t seem to make a difference who it was that you helped.

Dacher Keltner: Oliver believes there’s an evolutionary reason for that.

Oliver Scott Curry: Humans are a social species, we’ve lived together in social groups for 50 million years, and during that time we’ve relied on one another to survive and thrive. And cooperative behavior has really been one of the humans distinguishing features and has been responsible for our remarkable success.

Helping strangers can also raise your profile, can raise your status, can earn you the respect and admiration of your peers and lead them to choose you in the future.

Dacher Keltner: Kindness helps strengthen our connections to others. It’s also associated with all kinds of benefits: less stress, less anxiety, better cardiovascular health — even a longer life expectancy.

Oliver Scott Curry: I think overall, people underestimate the benefits of kindness for themselves and for others, and that they should give it a whirl because they will probably like it. And that doesn’t mean that they have to jump straight in and, you know, donate a kidney or sell all their worldly possessions. They can start small by saying hello to people on their commute or holding doors open. They don’t have to jump from zero to 100 immediately. They’re probably already at 50 percent. So just try out 51 percent. And if you like that, try out 52 percent and then keep going until you find your equilibrium.

Dacher Keltner: On our next episode of the Science of Happiness.

Elissa Epel: Since we know we can’t eradicate the slings and arrows of life, they will come. The question is how can we ride the wave smoothly? How can we not fight the riptide?

Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on The Science of Happiness. Our executive producer of audio is Shuka Kalantari, our producer is Haley Gray, sound designer Jenny Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our associate producers are Bria Suggs and Maarya Zafar and our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.

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