Pay It Forward (Even When You Don’t Feel Like It)

By Tara Cousinineau, Ph.D.

“We are all part of humanity, and each of us has the responsibility to improve humanity and to bring it additional happiness in order to make it more peaceful, friendlier, and compassionate,” said the Dalai Lama.


Easier said than done.

Mindfulness creates positive energy

But most people want to do the right thing, even when it feels hard. And it is at these very moments when our efforts really do matter. It’s one thing to do the right or kind thing because it feels easy or automatic—like paying for the toll fee for the car behind you or buying a cup of coffee for the person who forgot her wallet. But it is altogether a different thing when we need to rumble a bit on the inside, when our good deed comes at some cost to us—whether our emotions, time, or resources.

Kindness Takes Effort

Researchers don’t know precisely what characteristics or conditions motivate some people to be kinder than others. They just know that kind actions make people feel happier—and happier people do kind things. We could do more of them. A review of kindness studies by researchers at the Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University looked at studies on kindness interventions, such as doing a certain number of kind acts over a week or spending money on someone else rather than on oneself. When people perform acts of kindness at some cost to themselves, they are happier.

The idea of “paying it forward” has also gained traction in popular culture. Science confirms that friendliness, kindness, and generosity are incredibly good for health and wellbeing. Altruistic behavior makes people feel happier, triggering a “helper’s high” in the brain; is good for love life; improves symptoms of chronic illness; alleviates social anxiety; can boost one’s financial bottom line; and is associated with a longer life. In effect, paying it forward delivers the goodwill right back at ya.

Kindness is Contagious

The study of human social networks—whether they are face-to-face or online—shows that behaviors, ideas, and emotions spread among people with social ties. In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler explain how they mathematically connect the dots between complex human relationships, and they show how a person’s mood, health status, or action spreads. In effect, they can track what it means to pay it forward, whatever the “it” may be. For example, if a person smokes, is overweight, gets divorced, makes a donation, or goes to the polls to vote, these very attitudes or behaviors will influence friends to act similarly. There is a multiplier effect. The researchers have demonstrated this in a laboratory using “public goods” games with strangers. If the first person cooperates (gives money away to other people in future games whom they have not met), this generosity spreads to three other people, who each then spread it to three more, and so on. They call this phenomenon the Three Degrees of Influence Rule.

This shows that if you demonstrate a kindness even when it is at a cost to you, that generous behavior spreads to your friend (one degree), your friend’s friend (two degrees), and your friend’s friend’s friend (three degrees)—reaching people you don’t even know. Similarly, that third-degree friend you don’t know can influence you too, just by being in a network of shared social contacts. Christakis suggests that we assemble ourselves as “super organisms,” meaning we are organically connected to one another with emotions, beliefs, and memories. Our networks, he believes, are a kind of social capital.

The upside is that acts of kindness, generosity, and cooperation can spread with only a few people. Of course, the opposite can also happen: networks can spread harmful ideologies and behaviors, like fascism or terrorism. Knowing that what you do can influence at least three other people, what attitude or act of kindness, goodwill, or social action do you want to propagate?

Sometimes, kindness toward yourself is the best way to begin the chain of kindness.

What’s the one thing you can do today?

About the Author

Tara Cousineau, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher, well-being researcher, and social entrepreneur. She has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program and is affiliated with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, MA. Learn more about her new book, THE KINDNESS CURE (February 2018, New Harbinger Press) and check out her Kindness Quotient quiz.

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Adapted for Open Forest, from The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World (New Harbinger 2018) by Tara Cousineau.



Kelly-Gangi (ed.), The Dalai Lama: His Essential Wisdom (New York: Fall River Press, 2007), 36.

Tsvetkova and M. Macy, “The Science of ‘Paying It Forward,’” The New York Times Sunday Review, March 14, 2014, https://

S. Curry et al., “Happy to Help? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Performing Acts of Kindness on the Well-being of the Actor,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, September 21, 2016,

N. A. Christakis and J. H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2011)

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