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Stop Performing Random Acts of Kindness!

If we want acts of kindness to be "the gifts that keep on giving," let's each aim for concerted, not random, acts.
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Earlier this month as I walked across the University of Arizona campus to my office, I saw a young woman holding a sign: "free listening and free hugs." My curiosity was piqued. When I approached her, she explained that she was offering these acts for International Random Acts of Kindness Week, February 10-16, 2014. Later, I confirmed that not only was it International Random Acts of Kindness Week, but that Sunday, February 17th was Random Acts of Kindness Day in the U.S.

If, like me, you missed observing International Random Acts of Kindness Week, and you don't randomly perform acts of kindness--those seemingly selfless deeds made by individuals to help or cheer up a stranger--don't lament. The Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Foundation assures me that doing simple acts, including smiling at strangers and leaving quarters behind at the Laundromat, can be done throughout the year, and will leave me feeling happy.

Research confirms that people who perform acts of kindness feel positive emotions. In a 2006 article titled "Pay it Forward" in Psychology Today, the research of Stanford University psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky shows that performing random acts of kindness can make one feel happier. Further, in The Journal of Happiness Studies, a team of Japanese social scientists report that happy people become happier simply by counting their own acts of kindness toward others for one week, and that they became kinder and more grateful through this subjective counting. Women have been shown to respond more positively when observing a random act of kindness than do men, suggesting that women may be more attuned to kindnesses.

According to the RAK Foundation's website, individuals or "RAKtivists" should "practice kindness and pass it on to others." I thought some more. Perhaps, rather than smiling at a stranger or leaving quarters at a Laundromat, I could, as one website encouraged, "buy a coffee for the guy behind you in Starbucks." This, I knew could make my act part of a larger movement. Recall the 2013 holiday pay-it-forward movement at Starbuck's? Last December, more than 1000 people in a Connecticut Starbucks' drive-through window "paid it forward," donating $5-$20 (an average of $12.50) each to pay for the coffee of the person in the car behind theirs, igniting a national domino effect.

Performing random acts of kindness is good for the individual performing the act, and possibly the female who observes it, but can random acts be collectively committed, organized, and sustained?

As I considered my options, I did some research to find out the answer. Limited individual acts of kindness, according to Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist and author of The Happiness Hypothesis may not be fulfilling. He notes that "If you do a random act of kindness for a stranger and it's a one-shot deal, there's much less likelihood that you're going to see any benefit." He suggests that those who wish to practice acts of kindness join with others in a volunteer organization, which makes sustaining acts of kindness easier than being a "'kindness guerrilla' working on your own."

I decided, I agree. I suggest we redirect our efforts. We need acts of kindness, but ones that are concerted acts of kindness--purposeful, collective deeds aimed at solving social and economic issues. We need to become CAKtivists.

Instead of paying an average of $12.50 for a stranger's coffee, consider the ramifications of the 1000 Starbuck's customers pooling that money toward a common cause. $12,500 buys 4,032 meals for the hungry, according to Connecticut Food Bank and Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization. It could support Connecticut's SPCA care of nearly 700 homeless animals for one month. $12,500 would be put to good use in Hartford, Connecticut's rapid rehousing assistance program, an organization aimed at preventing low income families from losing their housing.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." In fact, we know what groups of all sizes, organized through technology and social media, can accomplish.

If we want acts of kindness to be "the gifts that keep on giving," let's each aim for concerted, not random, acts. Performing random acts of kindness may make each of us feel good, but working to eradicate local, national, and possibly global issues, such as hunger or homelessness, might feel even better, and help to accomplish sustained good.

So, whether you observed International Random Acts of Kindness Week or not, you can now commit to performing random acts of kindness--together--in well-organized efforts aimed at making social and economic change. I will engage in concerted acts of kindness. Instead of randomly helping people, I feel confident that by working with others to improve the lives of refugees in Tucson, I will have an impact and also will feel really good. What might you do?