The Power of Small Acts of Service

A few Wednesdays ago, a group of about fifteen seventh-graders filed into my classroom for the first ever meeting of our school’s “Community Service Committee.” The group was the result of a new effort to give students more opportunities to take on leadership roles in the school, but I knew that quite a few of the students hadn’t exactly leapt at the chance to sign up for community service–instead, they wound up in the committee I’d be advising after their preferred slots in other committees filled up.

At the outset of our first meeting, quite a few kids looked a bit skeptic as I tried to explain why community service was important. One kid openly asked, “Can I change committees? I don’t want to do community service unless I have to.” But just about fifteen short minutes later, I saw that same kid–along with everyone else–with a big smile on his face, asking, “When can we do this again?”

What changed? Well, we started actually doing community service!

That first meeting, I introduced my students to freerice.com–a website run by the United Nations World Food Programme. The site hosts a variety of quiz-based games featuring a wide array of categories, from vocabulary to world geography. For every question you get right, you earn ten grains of rice that are donated, through the World Food Programme, to impoverished people around the world. The system, funded by small ads which appear on each page, has donated over 96 billion grains of rice since it was created in 2007. It’s a quick, easy, and fun way to do good–and it can be rather addicting!

The transformation that was launched once my students started playing the game was simply astonishing. Any shreds of doubt about the idea of community service vanished instantly, and they instead began to trade ideas for how they might be able to do even more. One girl created a group on the website for us to track our shared donations, while other students started tossing around ideas for spreading awareness of the site around the school and the broader community. The change in the room’s atmosphere was instantaneous and incredible.

In fact, it was such a dramatic shift that it made me look into the effects of doing small acts of service. And turns out, there is a wealth of research showing that small acts of kindness can make a big difference on a person’s outlook and general happiness. According to Dr. David Hamilton, performing acts of kindness creates a sort of emotional warmth that leads to the release of a hormone called oxytocin which can lower blood pressure. A study from the University of British Columbia found that for individuals with high levels of anxiety, doing nice things for others led to significant increases in people’s’ positive moods, as well as an increase in relationship satisfaction and a decrease in social avoidance. And you don’t even have to do these acts of kindness frequently to reap the rewards–according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside,  you only need to perform these positive acts once a week to see an increase in happiness.

I think we all know instinctively that we can benefit ourselves by doing good to others, but it’s great to see that science can actually support that instinctual knowledge. Based on all this tremendous research, I’m now going to encourage the Community Service Committee I advise to carry out more small acts of service in the hopes of building a culture of kindness at our school. And I’m hoping to do more of those small acts of kindness on my own, too.

One thing I could certainly use, though, is ideas. I know that people have come up with all kinds of great ideas for small acts of service. One friend of mine, for instance, always kept a box of granola bars in her car, in case she encountered someone who could use a bite to eat. That’s just one example of the kind of creative generosity that I know each of us is capable of.

The kids on my committee are really excited to try small acts of kindness, and are hungry for ideas they can put in action. If you have any good suggestions, please let me know in the comments and hopefully we can put them to good use!

1 thought on “The Power of Small Acts of Service

  1. Thanks for this post, Tom! Had no idea about freerice.com, will spread the word. This week I learned about randomactsofkindness.org. Some of the 5th grade classes at my sons’ school participated in RAK (Random Act of Kindess) week which culminates today in RAK day. Below is how they participated:
    “As we do each year, we once again made bookmarks and place-mats with messages of kindness on them. The handmade bookmarks promoting kindness will be given to the Green Lake Library to pass out to their patrons. The place-mats will be used by a local retirement community, Merrill Gardens at First Hill, upon which they will serve dinner to all of their residents on RAK Day on the 17th.”

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