In March 2020, when our world was turned upside down by the coronavirus, and everyone was forced to shelter inside, I began doing something that I felt would have a positive impact on others.
I identified about a half-dozen individuals in their 80s who lived in our community, and I called them each Friday to wish them a Good Shabbos, find out how they were doing, and ask them if they needed help with anything.
The exercise took no more than 30 minutes of my time. But the impact this small act of kindness had on the recipients was immeasurable.
One of the people I regularly called unfortunately passed away last year. When I paid a shiva call to the family, his daughter said that my weekly call was something that her father looked forward to every week – and that this small act of chessed was enormously appreciated.
Since starting this practice, I’ve continued to call several elderly individuals in our community regularly – perhaps not every week, but often enough so that it is still part of my routine.
I tell you this story not to brag. Frankly, there are many people in our community and in other communities who are doing enormous acts of chessed that are unparalleled in their significance and importance, which make my phone calls pale in comparison. However, there’s still a valuable lesson to learn from the small acts of kindness that are performed by myself and by others.
There are some interesting new findings in the psychological world that corroborate just how powerful small and unexpected gestures can be. Researchers found that people who perform a random act of kindness tend to underestimate how much the recipient will appreciate it. And they also believe that this miscalculation unfortunately holds back many of us from doing nice things to others more often. Apparently, we don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it really is.
In one experiment, 84 participants were recruited at an ice skating rink in Chicago on a cold winter day. They were each given a hot chocolate, and were told they could either keep it or give it to a friend. The majority of the participants gave away their hot chocolate to a friend – and they were asked how big this act of kindness was on a scale of 1 to 10 and to predict how the recipients of the hot chocolate would rate their mood after receiving the hot chocolate. The recipients were then asked to report how they actually felt using the same scale. In that experiment – and in similar ones – the people performing the kind act consistently underestimated how much it was actually appreciated.
And these miscalibrated calculations have an important effect on future behavior. If people believe that their small acts of kindness will not have a positive effect, it can often stand in the way of engaging in more of these acts of chessed in daily life.
“People tend to think that what they are giving is relatively inconsequential,” said Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas and one of the authors of the experiment described above. “But recipients are less likely to think along those lines. They consider the gesture to be significantly more meaningful because they are also thinking about the fact that someone did something nice for them.”
In addition, researchers have found that we tend to overthink kindness when the opportunity arises. Not only might we think that the act of kindness we perform is not terribly significant, we also might question whether our action will be misinterpreted or whether the recipient will feel pressured to pay it back. And consequently, we often end up doing nothing instead.
The truth is that acts of kindness rarely end up backfiring. They are deeply appreciated by the recipient, much more than you can ever imagine.
So how can you apply this information to your daily life, and perform small acts of kindness? The opportunities are endless?
I’m sure there are some friends who you have not spoken to in many years. Call or text them, to find out how they are doing. If there is a kiddush after services on Shabbat, offer to help a young family with children get a plate of food for their kids, or an older individual, so they don’t have to deal with the crowd. Offer to pick up a senior who doesn’t drive but who might like to attend a class during the week. If you are attending a class, buy a box of donuts for your classmates to share. Do you have a special skill or talent? Perhaps you can turn that into an offering for other people.
You’ll be amazed at the impact these small gestures can have.