A kind soul is a happy soul

When I was growing up, adults around us often said, “Eat up your food! Don’t waste! Think of all the starving children in Africa!”  To be frank, I am not sure whether this made any difference in me finishing the food on plate. It was probably more the prospect of getting a scolding that provided the compliance.

All this came back to me when I was reading this article about a  joint study carried out by 2 American universities and Seoul National University on the influence of culture on happiness increasing activity.

Now, all who want to be happier – Hands Up!


So researchers have discovered that there are 2 very simple exercises that can increase your happiness levels – expressing gratitude and acts of kindness.

Practice these and you might just give yourself a feel good boost but what about your cultural heritage? Does it help or impede your happiness boosting activity?

That’s what this 2013 study wanted to find out.

250 US  participants and 270 Korean participants were randomly assigned to express gratitude, perform kind acts or engage in a neutral activity for 6 weeks.

The analyses showed that while US participants’ well being increased from both of the happiness boosting activity, the South Korean participants benefited significantly less from practicing gratitude than the US participants. Why is that? The researchers posit that South Koreans might be more prone to feel mixed emotions (indebtedness and gratitude).

However, kind acts produced the same amount of happiness boost for both sets of participants.

You know what? I could  have told them that if they had just asked me. They could have save all that time in carrying out multilevel growth  modelling analyses.

Think of how many times in your childhood your parents have told you ( and now you do it to your children too) – “Say thank you to Uncle” “Don’t forget to say Thank You to Auntie” “Don’t return an empty container to Auntie who gave you the fried noodles yesterday, put something in it.”

So from young, we Asians have it drummed into us – “You jolly well feel some gratitude when someone does something for you” . The process doesn’t end there – we then have to store this act into our memory and then it is retrieved when it requires reciprocation in kind. Mind you, depending on the “weight” of the act that  requires the reciprocation, this can transcend physical boundaries (cousins whom you have not met  who are living on some other continent  by virtue of your great grandfather having sponsored someone’s education can still invoke some level of gratitude).

Now how on earth would this bring you pure happiness? When you have to keep score?!!

I have often wondered, then does it mean that we do not need to act in kind towards people whom we are not in gratitude to?

To be fair, this Asian value of gratitude is probably responsible for easing the life of migrants when they left their homes in search of a better life. It is also reflective of a Asian culture where individualism is not the strongest trait – you are bound and tied by family ties and ties of reciprocity. If you need further proof of this, just look who is invited to any Asian wedding  – I had a friend who had a 80 table wedding – 1 table has 10 diners – you do the math! In all probability, the couple’s friends would take up no more than 5 tables.

Now, back to the 2 happiness boosting activities – for me, it’s a no brainer – it’s better to be kind and expect nothing in return. While being kind,apply the much talked about these days,  Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance too. This means, you don’t choose who to be kind to, you don’t discriminate on gender, age, race, orientation or species.  A pure kind act is way better than a directed kind act.

It makes more sense to children to. Teaching discriminatory kindness is hard – it’s right to help your mother to carry heavy groceries but not your helper? Basic kindness should be taught to apply to everyone.

You can always choose to be KINDER to your chosen causes!



Layous K, Lee H,  Choi I, and Lyubomirsky S (2013). Culture Matters When Designing a Successful Happiness-Increasing Activity:

A Comparison of the United States and South Korea. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

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