The happiness hack that spreads joy and wellbeing

When was the last time you gave a compliment? For some, they just don’t come easily, but simple words of kindness can have wonderful knock-on effects.
A pair of hands on either side of a sheet of blank white paper. One hand holds a pen

Written by Katherine Stephens

European Marketing Planning Professional

Two women are sitting opposite each other on a busy commuter train. It’s a gloomy Tuesday morning and there are places they’d both rather be. As the train pulls into the station they stand, one notices that the other is wearing a truly lovely green dress. And so, without hesitation, says, “Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you that you look fantastic. I love your dress, it’s such a beautiful colour.”

There’s nothing quite like a compliment – and our brains love them. Immediately, the brain of the woman in the green dress would feel a hit of dopamine (often called the ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’) making her feel great. Close behind it would be serotonin and endorphins, more neurotransmitters, this time governing mood, wellbeing and social behaviour, giving her a swell of warmth and happiness. At the same time, oxytocin (AKA ‘the love hormone’) is released, creating feelings of trust and connection. It’s there to help us bond with others and create strong social relationships.

That’s a whole lot of scientifically proven feelgood from just a few simple words, right? But it doesn’t stop there. At the same time, the woman giving the compliment enjoys an identically joyful chemical blend in her own brain. And while the compliment takes seconds, the effects last and sometimes people can recall them years after they took place. Plus, dopamine is a gloriously complex and tricksy neurotransmitter – it always leaves you wanting more. So, once you’ve given or received a compliment, you can’t wait for another opportunity and people who give and receive them tend to keep going, creating a whole chain reaction of kindness.

But it’s not just about that hit of sweet, sweet dopamine. There has been plenty of research linking acts of kindness – including compliments – to improved health, such as lower blood pressure and a healthier immune profile. So, when we are kind to each other, everyone is a winner. You might wonder why we don’t do it more often.

“It’s harder to be person-specific when you’re quickly passing a note to someone, but a pre-printed positive sentiment or affirmation can still hit the spot.”

The very fact there is a Wikihow on ‘how to give a compliment’ kind of says it all. Problematically, sharing positivity can be tougher than it might appear, and we report giving far fewer compliments than we would actually like to. Of course, this essentially means that over the duration of our lives, we are not reaping all the excellent benefits of mutual kindness. Not only is this a shame, but it’s a wasted opportunity to increase our collective wellbeing through something that, for most of us, takes little effort.

Dr Xuan Zhao, a psychologist at Stanford University, and Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioural Science at Chicago University, wanted to explore this conundrum. Over the course of nine experiments, they found a consistent assumption that any compliments given would be received awkwardly or with less pleasure than intended. Those participating in the study also tended “to focus on competence when evaluating their own interpersonal actions,” basically meaning that they worry that they won’t be able to accurately articulate their thoughts, and this would make the words fall flat. In short: they assumed the worst and that stopped the compliment in its tracks. But Epley and Zhao’s research also looked at the flipside – those receiving compliments. And guess what? They didn’t care a jot. They just enjoyed the spirit with which it was given. “They just care about how nice or kind the compliment is,” said Epley, speaking to the BBC.

The arm of someone wearing a colourful cardigan. In their hand is a rose gold coloured Canon Zoemini pocket-sized printer.

If writing kind notes on the spot is hard, you can carry some pre-printed affirmations to share. The Canon Zoemini range creates perfect little cards that fit in your pocket for when the mood takes you.

So, if giving them is tough, but receiving them feels good, as long as the sentiment is kind, then how do we create a happy balance? A quick TikTok search for ‘giving kind notes to strangers’ may have the answer. With millions of views, TikTokers all over the world are giving kind and affirming notes to people they have never met before. And while they’re largely not of the ‘I love your dress’ variety, they certainly can be powerful. Those who do it report feeling oddly excited when they pass a note of kindness to a complete stranger, but also feel that they are experiencing the briefest moment of connection with another human. Just the idea that they may give a moment of joy or are sharing the words that someone really needs to read right now feels thrilling and a little magical. That certainly sounds like all the good brain chemicals doing their thing.  

But what might such a note say? It’s harder to be person-specific when you’re quickly passing a note to someone, but a pre-printed positive sentiment or affirmation can still hit the spot. Here are a few examples that others have used:

  • I just wanted to remind you that you are capable of amazing things. Keep believing in yourself and never give up.
  • You are stronger than you think. Keep pushing forward, and great things will happen.
  • Your dreams matter. Don't let anyone or anything stop you from chasing them.
  • Even on the toughest days, you have the strength to overcome any obstacle.

Of course, you mustn’t forget your nearest and dearest. Filling the world with kindness is a joyful act but notes of love and appreciation for those closest to you can also be bonding and trust enhancing. Use song lyrics from artists you both enjoy, quotes, in-jokes and memories. Compliment them on their finest qualities and remember times when they have amazed you with their strength, bravery and determination. It’s an opportunity to say so much in just a few words. And remember that kind words are like gifts – the best always have a truly personal touch.

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