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Can little actions bring big joy? Researchers find 'micro-acts' can boost well-being

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It's 8 a.m., and your in-box is filling up. You spot an email about a colleague's promotion. Do you scroll past or take a moment to give props? Or, you're in line at the coffee shop, where it's easy to tune everyone out. But, today, you decide to pick up the tab for the person behind you.

How might a small act like this influence your mood later today, tonight or throughout this week?

An analysis released Tuesday from scientists behind a research initiative called the BIG JOY Project finds that people who commit daily "micro-acts" of joy experience about a 25% increase in emotional well-being over the course of a week.

"We're really excited," says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a BIG JOY project leader, and science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. "There are statistically significant, measurable changes [including] greater well-being, better coping, less stress, more satisfaction with relationships."

The BIG JOY Project is a collaboration between UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and other research institutions. So far the researchers have preliminary results from over 70,000 participants in more than 200 countries. "What we're really focused on is understanding impact and the potential for change in people's lives," Simon-Thomas. Overall, the new analysis shows micro-acts led to increased feelings of hope, optimism, as well as moments of fun or silliness.

This project did not begin as a typical research study, but rather a 'citizen-science' project which is still open to anyone who wants to participate. Here's how it works. Participants take an on-line survey to answer questions about their emotions, stress, and their social tendencies. Then, every day for seven consecutive days, they agree to try small, happiness-boosting activities, what the researchers have dubbed "micro-acts" of joy.

All of the recommended micro-acts have been linked to emotional well-being in prior published studies. Examples include making a gratitude list or journal, or engaging in acts of kindness such as visiting a sick neighbor or doing a nice gesture for a friend – or a stranger. Some micro-acts involve celebrating another person's joy, or engaging in self reflection, meditation, or taking the time to identify the silver lining in a bad situation, known as positive reframing.

Each day, people answer questions about what they did and how they felt afterwards. At the end of the week, they take another survey to gauge how their emotions and sense of well-being have changed.

A sense of agency

When people intentionally plan out a daily micro-act, it may help them feel as if they have a bit of control over their emotions, explains researcher Elissa Epel, a BIG JOY collaborator, and a professor of psychiatry, at the University of California, San Francisco. "So there's this feeling of agency," Epel says, and that could be one explanation for the improvements in well-being seen in the survey.

For instance, participants were asked how much they agreed with the statement: "I have felt able to impact, influence, or play an active role in how happy I generally feel." The participants' level of agreement with this statement increased by about 27%, over the course of the week.

Since all participants chose to be part of the project, it's likely they were hoping for a benefit. But it's not clear if everyone — even people who don't believe small acts can be beneficial – would see the same results. "We haven't randomly assigned a group of people to do the seven day [program]," Simon-Thomas says, so without control group data, the results are all preliminary. The researchers plan to run some controlled studies and publish results in the future.

A tool for spreading well-being

At a time when global conflicts, political divide, and societal problems may seem insurmountable, some may question whether small acts of joy can help make a difference? The answer, the researchers say, stems from the ideas of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who both spoke about how it's possible to feel joy even in the midst of suffering, and to use that feeling to help do good.

The BIG JOY project began as a collaboration with documentary filmmakers who produced a 2021 film called Mission: Joy, which aimed to illuminate this message. "They really wanted to spread the wisdom that we have more control over our happiness than we know," Epel says.

Epel has spent decades studying how stress affects the body, and she says it's been surprising to see the benefits of micro-acts of joy. "These very short practices are clearly having a positive residue," Epel says. She's come to think of the micro-acts as "tools at our fingertips" that we can use in the moment to relieve feelings of stress, anxiety and worry.

Of course, it's important to point out what micro-acts cannot accomplish. They are not a replacement for therapy or medications used for serious mental health challenges, including depression. And, the researchers point out, it's also not appropriate to think micro-acts can help overhaul the struggles of someone whose basic needs are not met. "It would be embarrassing and shameful to be like, hey, you don't have enough to eat, why don't you try Big Joy," Simon-Thomas says.

But she says, the hope is that the joy that emanates from micro-acts may help spur some people to get involved in the greater good — whether it's in your community, your workplace, your school, or an organization you admire. "What we're hoping is that when people finish Big Joy they have that sense that, oh, my happiness is contingent in part on how generous and invested I am in common humanity," Simon-Thomas says.

Starting a new practice

At a time when random acts of kindness could be viewed as bumper sticker cliché, researchers say it's important to continue to nail down potential benefits through rigorous studies.

"I appreciate the skepticism," says Judith Moskowitz, a social scientist at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, who is not involved in the new Big Joy analysis. The body of research on positive psychology has to date produced mixed results. And Moskowitz says the ongoing research creates an opportunity to better understand the effects of these small steps.

Moskowitz's own research has shown a series of small steps (similar to those used in the Big Joy project) can help people cope during bad situations. For instance, she found caregivers caring for a sick loved one were able to tamp down anxiety after going through a 5-week course.

"So many of the things that are causing us stress and sadness are out of our control," Moskowitz says. "So these micro moments can give you something to hold on to," she explains, and help you stay engaged.

"Decades of research have shown that even in the context of really stressful events or sickness, there is absolutely the capacity to experience moments of positive emotion as well," she says.

Rather than thinking of joy as something that happens to you, it may make sense to think of it as a skill that you can get better at through practice, says Simon-Thomas. "If you want to stay physically fit, you have to keep exercising," Simon-Thomas says, and the same likely goes for well-being, she says.

Just as the benefits of exercise wear off, so too do the effects of these micro-acts.

"I feel optimistic. I feel more relaxed. I feel more supported in the world when I engage in these micro practices myself," says Simon-Thomas. "I just believe that humans can change for the better," she says.

One way to get started with the Big Joy concept, is to plan out the moment of your micro-act each day. Maybe build it into your daily dog-walking routine, that's a good time to make a mental gratitude list, or look for an opportunity to chat with a neighbor.

"Part of this is intention setting," Simon-Thomas says. "If you have a map to where you're going to go, you're much more likely to go there," she says.

We'd love to know your experience trying out micro-acts of joy. You can write to us at shots@npr.org.

This story was edited by Carmel Wroth.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.