☕️ Happy Habit #6: Buy a Coffee for a Stranger

• 5 min read

The next time you buy yourself a coffee, buy one for someone you don't know too...

Research Overview

Happier people are more motivated to be kind to others, recognize kindness in others more easily and do kind actions more frequently [1].

Performing random acts of kindness and recalling them later can significantly increase your subjective sense of well-being [2].

Core Concept

The research shows that small behaviors like buying a coffee for someone you don't know can provide a significant happiness boost. This works by releasing several chemicals in your brain:

  • Dopamine (feeling of reward when you see how the other person responds)
  • Oxytocin (rush of connection when you make eye contact with them)

If you're committed to building sustainable happiness in your life, I'd highly recommend curating a handful of kindness acts that work for you. Slowly over time you'll develop rhythms where you can design a routine to perform this act of kindness at specified times in your life.

This random act of kindness is just one of many behaviors that you could do. I've got many more to come in future issues.

I wanted to start off with this one as it's definitely a favorite.

Most people respond favorably to this as it comes as a surprise and is a nice gesture without much potential for misinterpretation.

Please remember: Only do what you actually want to do!

Behavior Tip

Fill in the blank with an option below:

The next time I buy myself a coffee, I am going to buy a coffee for ___________________________.

Options:

  1. The first person that walks in the door
  2. The person in front of me
  3. A homeless person I see on the way in
  4. Other

After I buy them a coffee, I am going to recall the moment before I go to sleep.

B:MAP

According to the Fogg Behavior Model ("FBM"), a behavior will only happen if:

  1. You're motivated to do it
  2. It's easy to do
  3. There's a prompt

If you actually want to try buying a coffee for someone you don't know, that's all the motivation you need.

If you already buy yourself coffee at some point throughout your week, that makes it a lot easier to do.

Seeing someone else walk into the coffee shop behind you or coming across a homeless person on the way in can be your prompt.

How to Foster a Positive Reaction

It might feel a bit awkward to buy coffee for a stranger. Recognize and accept this feeling. It's understandable.

See if you can foster a genuine sense of appreciation for the money you have that means you are able to buy this coffee. Realize the incredible amount of work that went into growing, harvesting, processing, roasting and brewing the coffee you are about to drink.

Our modern world has made this a commodity but it's really a phenomenal thing.

Cultivating thoughts of gratitude can help you feel more calm and confident about doing this act of kindness that isn't really a common occurrence!

Find yourself a comfortable phrase

Before you do the act of kindness you might want to try rehearsing a phrase that feels comfortable to you like:

"I know this might sound weird, but would you mind if I paid for your coffee today? I'm experimenting with random acts of kindness and thought this might be a good one to try..."

More likely than not someone will respond awkwardly but favorably. If you're in the UK like me you might have to insist on it!

Tell them it would really make your day.

Then be open to whatever happens next.

My Story

After learning more about the problem of homelessness from a friend who works for a local housing charity, I made a rule with myself:

For the next few months, when a homeless person asks me for money, I'll make eye contact with them and offer to buy them a coffee or a bite to eat.

Eye contact is the key.

Living in Norwich meant that while there are homeless people on the streets they aren't on every corner and so the prompt occurs at a reasonable frequency. I also have a lifestyle that means I have a bit more margins in my day and can afford to take an extra 10-15 mins to grab a coffee with someone on the streets.

I remember the first time I decided to do this. I was on the way back from a meeting where I had just landed a consulting project at a good day rate.

I saw a young gentleman outside a coffee shop that looked about my age. He asked if I could spare some change. I responded, "I honestly don't have any change but I'd happily buy you a coffee."

He said that would be great.

"Have you had breakfast yet today?"

He shook his head.

I ordered two coffees and two breakfast sandwiches and sat down next to him when it was ready.

I hadn't intended to do this, but it felt like the right thing to do. I was genuinely curious about his story.

We started talking openly and I learned his name was Alistair. He'd been on the street six months when his aunt kicked him out of his house. His mother had mental health issues and he ran away from her home when he was 13.

During our conversation, I was surprised to see how many people suddenly began looking at us and donating money. All because I decided to sit down and recognize his humanity.

He said he'd been out there for three hours and not a single person had given him anything up to that point.

The outsized impact of small acts of kindness

I was also surprised to experience the bizarre cocktail of emotions that came over me. It started with a potent boost of satisfaction and meaning, but I also found that it also came with a tinge of guilt and shame.

I remember looking at my clothes with scrutiny wondering how that money may have been spent to better use...

While these thoughts might not seem like 'happy thoughts', they are in fact at the root of happiness as they help us align our perception with reality and be more conscious of the choices we make and the impact they have.

All of this from deciding to buy someone a coffee. Pretty cool, eh?

That's the science of happiness for you!

Give it a go

Buying a coffee for someone you don't know might just give you a small boost in positive brain chemicals that brightens your day.

Or it might just be the shift that allows you to openly see your life from a different angle and recognize how much goodness is in it.

Like with most happiness interventions, acts of kindness tend to have a snowball effect that enable you to feel more grateful and recognize that you don't really need anything.

Bonus: At the end of your day recall the random act of kindness and remember how it felt. Well done! 👏 You did a brave thing! Not many people have the courage that you do... 💪

The science shows that recalling acts of kindness has an additional happiness boost.

Citations

  1. Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J. et al. Happy People Become Happier through Kindness: A Counting Kindnesses Intervention. J Happiness Stud 7, 361–375 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-005-3650-z
  2. Lyubomirsky S, Sheldon KM, Schkade D. Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology. 2005;9(2):111-131. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111
  3. Kim Baskerville, et. al, Reactions to random acts of kindness The Social Science Journal, Volume 37, Issue 2, 2000, Pages 293-298, ISSN 0362-3319, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0362-3319(00)00062-8.
  4. Kellon Ko, Seth Margolis, Julia Revord & Sonja Lyubomirsky (2021) Comparing the effects of performing and recalling acts of kindness, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16:1, 73-81, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1663252
← 🌬 Happy Habit #7: Three-Minute Breathing Space
✍🏻 Happy Habit #5: Write a Letter to Forgive →

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