Gretchen Rubin is working on a book called "The Happiness Project," about a year she "spent test-driving every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study [she] could find, whether from Aristotle or St. Therese or Martin Seligman or Oprah." In yesterday's Huffington Post, she shared an insight gleaned from this experiment: If you want to be (and make others) happy, don't perform "random acts of kindness."
Rubin says that at least one study has shown that the recipients of those random acts (in this case, handing a stranger a flower) respond with skepticism rather than gratitude and good cheer. This makes sense; con games and cult memberships often begin with a perfect stranger being showily generous, and even among those without nefarious intentions, it's just weird. Thinking so, Rubin writes, doesn't betray "a fundamental cynicism or a deep distrust of mankind; it just shows that I think that most people act purposefully, and if I don't understand the purpose, I question their motives. It's not the kindness of the act that's the problem; it's the randomness."
Exactly. In fact, I'd argue that the randomness can sometimes entirely negate the kindness. The problem with doing something nice for a stranger is that you have no way of knowing if you're really doing something nice or inadvertantly being a pain in the ass. That woman you handed a flower to might be allergic, or she might not be headed anywhere with water and a vase in the next several hours and will feel guilty about letting it die, or she might just be creeped out by accepting generosity from someone she doesn't know well, since that so often comes with strings attached. In order for an act to be truly kind, rather than merely a vehicle for your own self-congratulation, there needs to be a reasonable presumption that it will actually help the recipient -- which usually involves knowing something about that person. As Rubin puts it, "wondering why someone inexplicably did something for you, however nice, is a bit unnerving."
I heartily agree with that, but the commenters at HuffPo are divided -- mostly because, it seems, no one can agree on what constitutes a "random" act. Is there an important difference between handing someone 5 bucks when you've just watched him come up short on a grocery tab and handing 5 bucks to the first person you see on the street? Is holding a door open for someone a random act of kindness or just good manners? Are we only suspicious of unexpected altruism because it doesn't happen enough -- does the world need more random acts of kindness? Tell us what you think in comments.