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Oh, you shouldn’t have’: Why is the gift of happiness so difficult to accept?


“No act of kindness, however small is ever wasted”


How many times have you given a gift to someone only to hear the other person say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”  But why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you give someone a gift – after all, we all enjoy giving gifts don’t we?

Most of us, interestingly enough, will admit to gaining significantly more pleasure from the giving of a gift then to receiving one.  The enjoyment we feel in giving makes perfect sense when you think of it particularly if the gift isn’t materialistic – giving a compliment, showing gratitude and appreciation, helping others, the giving of our time, are all examples of what is referred to as altruism – the need we all have to look beyond ourselves and to consider instead the needs of others.

It’s worth considering, just for a moment, the purpose of altruism.  It may of course be a part of our biological inheritance.  The unselfish commitment we show to helping others in times of distress bonds us to those people making it easier for us to be accepted by them. We are social beings after all –  we feel the need to support and to be supported by others. Its extraordinary how kind, compassionate and helpful people can be following, for example tragedies such as a terrorist attack or a natural disaster and yet altruism appears to be more than just a biological instinct – it’s more than simply an innate act, it also appears to be something we can learn.  We can learn to be kind.

Psychological well-being, according to psychologist Carol Ryff (1989), consists of a number of components including environmental mastery (the ability to function within our environment), autonomy, a sense of purpose, personal growth, self-acceptance, and positive relations with others.  To this, we could add the ability to be kind, and compassionate; to empathise; to see and appreciate situations from the point of view of others; to be understanding and forgiving; to give ourselves to others without asking for anything in return.

The psychological benefits to helping others has been well documented. It is well-known that happy people are far more likely to help others than unhappy people. Happy people are far more likely to check up on an elderly neighbour, to buy a homeless person a sandwich or a coffee; they are also far more likely to give their time to others, to go the extra mile at work without being asked to do so, and so on.  Being kind also effects a person’s point of view making perspectives more charitable and generous.  The homeless person who is given the gift of something to eat and drink may be perceived by the giver as a war veteran struggling with PTSD, the disengaged youth is someone struggling to find a purposeful sense of direction in life, etc.

Positive psychologists offer a number of evidence-based exercises designed to boost well-being through performing small acts of kindness.  Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) conducted one such research project.  The project involved participants being divided into two groups – the participants in both groups were asked to perform 5 acts of kindness per week, every week for 6 weeks but with a slight difference.  The first group were asked to perform these acts of kindness randomly throughout the trail period whereas the second group were asked to perform their 5 acts of kindness on one specific day each week.

At the end of each week the participants were asked to review their progress including the acts of kindness they performed including when they performed them and for whom. Examples included ‘gave blood’, ‘stayed with a friend on their first night in their new home’, ‘gave money to a homeless person’, ‘helped someone with an IT problem’, ‘visited a nursing home’, ‘washed someone else’s dishes’, ‘bought a friend an ice cream’, ‘let my sister borrow my car’, ‘sent a thank you letter to my teacher.’

The results were fascinating.  All the participants benefitted from the exercise but those who committed their 5 acts of kindness during a single day reported a greater improvement in their happiness levels than did the participants who dispersed their acts of kindness throughout the 6 week period.

Lyubomirsky speculates that the reason for this is to be found in how and when we perform our acts of kindness as opposed to just performing them, per se.  For example, most of us perform acts of kindness from time to time – we may hold a door open for someone, let someone go in front of us in a queue, allow a motorist to take the parking space we had our eye on, and so on.  Performing acts of kindness such as these, though good for us won’t necessarily raise our levels of subjective well-being in any significant or meaningful way – any benefits we feel won’t last, they will quickly lose their effect.  Acts of kindness in order for them to have a marked and significant impact need to be performed often and regularly not just occasionally.  In other words, if you want benefit from being kind then you need to be kind often and not just occasionally.

So, the next time someone offers you a gift don’t say; “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” say, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.” And take the time to enjoy, as the receiver, the same good feeling enjoyed by the giver.

I’m offering you the gift of this blog … I hope you enjoy it.




Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want. London: Piatkus.

Ryff, C. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1069 – 81.


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