The spirit of Christmas makes us all feel a little more compassionate and as well as helping others feel good, it can have surprising benefits for your own health.

 At this time of year, most of us instinctively act more kindly towards friends, family and colleagues, but there’s also a kindness phenomenon sweeping the globe right now whereby random acts of kindness are being done for complete strangers.

The people carrying out these thoughtful acts are called ‘ractivists’.

A quick search online brings up countless Facebook groups and websites dedicated to random acts of kindness, with a whole host of weird and wonderful ideas for how you too can take part.

The news this year has been full of examples: there’s the bus driver in Yorkshire who pulled over mid-route to help an old lady cross the road; he was snapped in the act by a fellow passenger and the photo racked up more than 30,000 likes on social media. Then there was the woman at the McDonald’s drive-thru in Mississippi who offered to pay for the order of the person behind her in the queue, sparking a chain of people doing the same, which lasted for more than an hour.

And the shopper in Victoria, Australia, who was left in tears after being given a box of chocolates and some flowers by kind staff in Woolworths after they heard about her bad week.

A warm fuzzy feeling

Even just reading about heart-warming acts such as these puts a smile on your face, and actually doing them can bring you so much more. ‘Evidence shows that helping others is actually beneficial for your own mental health and wellbeing,’ says John Duncan, psychological consultant from Wellbeing Within. ‘It can help to reduce stress, improve your emotional wellbeing and even boost your immune system by helping to decrease negative emotions such as anger, aggression or hostility that can have a negative impact on your body. When you help others, it promotes physiological changes in your brain associated with happiness.’

And if that’s not enough of a reason, John also suggests acts of kindness can distract you from your own problems. ‘Helping others in need, especially those less fortunate than you, can provide a real sense of perspective and make you realise how lucky you are.’

A new perspective

One women who has certainly seen first hand the benefits of random acts of kindness is Bernadette Russell, author of The Little Book of Kindness, (£7.99, Orion).

‘I was in the post office queue and a boy in front of me had his hood up,’ she recalls. ‘It was just after the London riots and there was lots of negative press about youths. I thought “I bet people assume he was involved because of how he looks”.’

When the boy didn’t have enough money to pay for his stamps, Bernadette gave him the money he needed. He was so incredibly grateful that on the way home she had an idea to do something kind every day for a year.

At the time she was working for herself and wasn’t very engaged in social media. But she started using it purely to keep a diary of the kind acts she did, which varied from leaving a jar of sweets in a phone box or a five pound note on a bus seat, to making 150 Valentine’s cards and cakes and handing them out on the London underground.

‘It was a really full-on experience that first year,’ she recalls. ‘But I found it interesting to start looking at the world in a new way and think about the outcome of my positive acts.’ Since embarking on her kindness mission, Bernadette has written a stage show and book about it, and now gives talks about how kindness can change people’s lives.

‘For me it’s about having my faith in humankind reaffirmed,’ she says, ‘and realising that it’s actually kindness that makes the world go round, not money. Kindness happens everywhere all the time, every single minute, and you don’t have to do something huge to make a big difference.’

And what better time of year to start carrying out small random acts of kindness than now, the season of goodwill?

Find out more about Bernadette’s stage show and project here.

What could you do?

Why not try one of these random acts of kindness and tell us how it made you feel? We’d love to hear on Facebook, or write in to
  • Leave some money and a note for someone else to find.
  • Cook a meal or treat and give it to a friend who’s having a tough time, or even donate to a stranger.
  • Email a former boss, teacher or friend who has made a real difference to your life and thank them.
  • Give someone a hug.
  • Buy some shopping and leave it outside the house of someone who might need it.
  • Sweep up the leaves outside your elderly neighbour’s house.
  • Write positive messages on Post-it notes and leave them in your local library or coffee-shop for people to find.
  • If you see someone crying, offer them a tissue or a hug.
  • Talk to someone at work who you’ve never spoken to before.
  • Buy a bunch of flowers and hand them to somebody who looks like they need cheering up.
  • When you’re in the coffee queue, pay for someone else’s as well as your own.