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Hundreds of studies have found that actively helping people does good things for the psyches of all involved. By going out of your way to bring dinner to an overworked friend, pay for someone else’s highway toll, or otherwise lend a hand, you get a positive brain boost and so does the person you helped.
But Paul Zak, PhD, a neuroeconomist and a professor at Claremont Graduate University, says even less tangible acts of kindness can make the giver-and especially the recipient-feel good. These small deeds require minimal effort on your part but are often experienced just as deeply-or even more so-than many of the run-of-the-mill things people do to be good to one another.
Here are five of Dr. Zak’s favorite ways to give the people in his life a little happiness boost (while reaping some of those same feel-good benefits for himself!). See which ones work best for you.
- Ask “How can I be of service to you?”
Zak repeats this phrase in just about every meeting he attends. Doing so makes your collaborators feel supported and heard, which is especially important around the workplace. This also gives your colleagues a chance to air concerns and ask for any additional help they might need. Of course, this phrase can be used with anyone at any time. If a friend or family member is going through a transition or a busier than usual period-such as welcoming a new baby-a check-in like this will be much appreciated.
- Maintain eye contact (and stop checking your phone!)
This one sounds easy, until you try it. Chances are that a few moments into conversation you’ll become distracted and check the time, glance at the television, or otherwise look away from the person you’re speaking with. This isn’t just rude-it’s also a subconscious indication that you aren’t fully engaged. “When someone gives you all of their attention it’s a gift,” says Zak. “By showing that you’re not chained to your device, it’s a real show of interest and respect.” This one comes up a lot at home for Zak, but it’s easy to practice with anyone, from the person bagging your groceries to the receptionist at your office.
- Stop pretending you’re the only person in the box
Always one to test out new ideas on happiness and connection, Zak recently became an elevator talker. (You know-one of those people who engages with strangers while riding in elevators.) He thinks you should follow suit. “We’re in a little box and pretend to be in it alone,” says Zak. “So I recently gave myself a rule that every time I get into an elevator I have to say ‘Hello, how are you?'” The idea is to make this friendly, not bothersome. Per Zak, some people just smile and nod back, but other people really answer, expressing themselves in a way that makes it clear they’ve been waiting for someone to ask.
- Comment on their emotions
Even if you’re not always able to read other people’s moods and feelings, chances are you have noticed occasions when your coworkers, friends, and family members have seemed more happy, sad, relaxed, or frustrated than usual. By commenting on these observations you can make a person feel seen; by asking them why they’re feeling that way you give them a chance to feel heard, too. “I recently did this with a coworker,” says Zak. “She had this glow to her. And she told me that she had recently lost 15 pounds and was feeling great all-around.” After a short exchange like this, everyone involved will feel better.
- Expand your use of the “L” word
Saying “I love you” is usually second nature around family. You may feel vulnerable saying it to romantic partners at the beginning of a relationship, although after a while that might become automatic too. But what about the other people in your life? The close friends and maybe even longtime colleagues that you really, really like, or, you know, love? Let them know how you feel, suggests Zak. If you have dear friends or colleagues, express it to them using “love” if you’re comfortable with it, or other words if you aren’t. “Expressing that sentiment produces that level of connection that is powerful for all,” says Zak.
Jessica Cassity writes about health, fitness, and happiness for publications including Self, Shape, Health, Women’s Health, and Family Circle magazines. Her first book, Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You was published in 2011.
Paul J. Zak, PhD is a scientist, prolific author, and public speaker, and he serves on the faculty at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. His book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity was published in 2012.