Category Archives: Helping others

I’ll scratch your back and I’ll scratch mine

At my all-boys grammar school, only the smartest were invited to study Latin, so the nearest I’ve ever been to the subject is when I’ve used ‘pretend Latin’ (the kind which starts ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’) for mocking up designs that need areas of dummy text.

It doesn’t stop me being curious about Latin phrases, however, which the other day had me thinking about ‘quid pro quo’, literally ‘this for that’.

You give me a dollar and I’ll give you this bag of potatoes. You work these hours for me and I’ll pay you this wage. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

The idea of trading one thing for another is pretty embedded in life, one way or another, so much so that one might be tempted to think that there is nothing in the idea of ‘something for nothing’.


In fact we’re led to believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, an adage with its roots in 19th century American saloon bars which offered free food if you bought a drink. The trick, of course, was that the ‘lunch’ largely consisted of salty food – encouraging customers to buy more drinks. Steady with those peanuts, barman.

The truth, of course, is that most of us do indeed do things for others with no expectation of anything in return. Why would we do this, though? One explanation is that humans, it seems, are hard-wired for altruism. It’s in our genes. Another is that we generally get a buzz from lending a hand to someone else. Maybe the two concepts are related? Other instinctive behaviours are associated with pleasant feelings, and this of course encourages us to indulge in them.

When you do things for others, it leads to the world being a better place. It also provides you with a healthy dose of the feelgood factor.

So maybe you’ll get an opportunity to put this into practice today? Or, as Google Translate suggests that my school Latin teacher might have said: ‘An hoc in praxi locum habere te hodie?’

Why doing things for others can do things for you too

If I gave you a dollar, you’d have it and I wouldn’t.

If I mowed your lawn, you’d still have your energy but I’d be exhausted.

(You did say you’d got a big garden, didn’t you?)

If I gave you one of my favourite books, it would be on your shelf rather than mine.


When you do something for someone else, you might be forgiven for viewing it as a sacrifice, where you always end up worse off than they do, but fortunately it’s generally a lot more two-way than this, isn’t it?

What’s notably absent from the equations above is the feelgood factor – that positive glow you get when you help someone.

Knowing that it works in this way means there’s absolutely nothing wrong in harnessing the effect when you need a lift yourself.

Simply look for ways in which you can do a good deed or two.

There’s not even any particular need for them to be big things: small acts of kindness work just as well.

Pay someone a genuine and heartfelt compliment.

Smile at a stranger in the street.

Spot a news item that might interest a friend and email them a link to it.

Offer to run an errand for a neighbour.

Give a child fifteen minutes more of your attention than you normally might.

Pick up three pieces of litter.

Tell a friend a joke you know will make them chuckle.

Cook someone a meal.

The laws of physics suggest that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’: empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural, as something always rushes to fill them up.

In much the same way, the ‘gap’ created when you do something for, or give something to, someone is almost guaranteed to be replaced by a not unpleasant warmth in your heart.

So what do you think?

Is today a day for doing things for others, perhaps?

Make the most of your talents to help someone else

For hopefully obvious biological reasons I’ve never been a mother, but if I had, I’m sure I’d declare that it felt as if I’d spent my entire life doing things for others, much of it involving picking up items of discarded clothing and small unidentifiable plastic toy parts.

If you’ve been in a situation in which others have entirely depended on you, you’ll know that it can be incredibly demanding work, leaving little time for much else, but even when you’re being run ragged by supporting others, it’s likely that you’ll feel at least a small degree of satisfaction from doing so.

There’s no doubt that helping people and, in general, showing kindness to others delivers a physiological lift whose chemical effect some experts suggest is similar to a diluted morphine hit.

No wonder some refer to it as a ‘helper’s high’.

Of course, when we do things for one another, it doesn’t just give us a boost – it helps to create a better world, a more integrated community, an environment in which it’s nicer to live.

So why not look for small ways of helping those with whom you come into contact during the next 24 hours?

If you’re physically strong, offer to lift something for someone who isn’t.

If you’re skilled at something, do a favour which utilises your ability.

If you’re not in a hurry, give way to someone who is.

It’s often the small actions which have the most impact.

Where next with Moodnudges?


I’d like to start an important conversation today, and I’d love you to join in by commenting below.

Five and a half years ago, back in February 2010, I began writing mood-boosting emails which went out every day to members of the Moodscope site that I started with Caroline and Adrian.

In May 2013 I left Moodscope in Caroline and Adrian’s capable hands, and that October I moved to California to start a new life.

In May last year I began publishing again, this time as Moodnudges.

In the beginning, the messages went out every day, but then following feedback from readers, I scaled back to four times a week – a lot of people (although admittedly not everyone) told me that daily posts were too much to read, a problem with which I have a lot of sympathy.

Around 200 billion emails are sent worldwide every single day.

And sometimes it can seem like most of those are in your in-box, can’t it?

When I began writing again last year, I was working with Alexandra Carmichael, but a few months ago Alex realised she needed to get a proper job earning a proper salary.

So she now works as a director of an exciting biotech start-up in San Francisco called uBiome, from which you can order an analysis of your microbiome, the community of bacteria you (and we all) carry in and on our bodies.

Fascinating stuff.

Anyway, when we worked together Alex wrote some of the Moodnudges posts, but for the past few months the work has been all mine. I now work alone.

I tell you this by way of background, and also to give you some context.

Over the years my emails have had pretty good feedback from many of those who’ve received them.

In fact some readers have been with me since way back in 2010, and I’m modestly proud (if that can be a thing) of people’s kind and warm reactions.

However, I’m a little less satisfied with the failure of the list to grow.

In the interests of transparency here’s a circulation graph:

Moodnudges Circulation Growth

You’ll see that things were growing acceptably until about seven months ago, since when the readership has remained pretty static.

We currently have approximately 2,700 readers (thank you!) but it’s interesting to know that in addition to this 2,700, another 900 people have signed up but then unsubscribed.

Now I know this is not an untypical number of “unsubscribes”, but it’s made me think hard about both the flavour of the posts and their frequency.

Am I writing what people want to read?

And am I publishing posts at the right rate? Not too often, nor too infrequently?

Over the years, both with Moodscope and while working in advertising, I guess I developed a kind of sixth-sense for “content”.

Sometimes things worked and people wanted to read what I wrote.

But sometimes they didn’t.

And right now, I guess I’m questioning what people really want from Moodnudges.

Do you feel the content is compelling enough at the moment, and that all it will take to grow the list is to publicise it better? Or is there something else you’d like me to be doing?

I’m genuinely interested to know, and will particularly welcome suggestions.

Although our numbers here are relatively small, I have a strong sense that we are a fantastic community.

Whenever I’ve asked for help before, with surveys etc., I’ve invariably been knocked out by the number of people who’ve chipped in.

So I guess my main question (and sorry for taking so long to get to it) is: What can I do to deliver the kind of content that will really knock your socks off, and also persuade stacks more people to signup?

Please be very honest! I can take it.

I can’t wait to hear what people think.

Thank you so much.

How offering a little assistance can lead to a lot of reward

If someone mentions the idea of doing things for others (which is generally a pretty sure-fire – and legitimate – way to feel good about yourself, by the way) the first thoughts to hit your mind might be physical acts such as baking them a cake, mowing their lawn or cleaning their windows, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with offering assistance like that.


The trouble is, there’s not always time for good deeds such as these, so here are five things you can do for others today, no matter how busy you may be.

1. Smile at people. What’s it like when someone smiles at you? Nice, eh? So go first today, and get one in before they do.

2. Listen properly when someone’s talking to you, and use body language to demonstrate that you are. A radio interviewer nods her head at her subject to encourage him to go on. Think like a reporter today.

3. Compliment someone and be specific about it. Tell a friend that you like what she’s wearing, and that the colours suit her. Let a busker know you love the tune he’s playing.

4. Take a little time to chat to strangers. It might just be small-talk to you, but it could be a vital bit of human contact for the other person, especially if they’re shy.

5. Help someone see a positive side of their problem. There may not always be one, of course, but sometimes people get bogged down in negatives. Give them another view, which is sympathetic but a little more optimistic.

When you’re busy, why not try to do small things like these for others as part of your normal day?

Although by all means bake a cake if you’ve got the time. And the flour.

Do yourself a favour by doing someone else a favour

Oh come on, do me a favour.

Interesting, isn’t it, that when someone says this, rather than literally seeking help, they’re actually asking someone to stop doing something which is making them angry. The English language and its idioms have evolved in curious ways.


However, in a more obvious – less snarky – way, doing someone a favour can be a neat shortcut to feeling good yourself. Pro-social behaviour is good for the tribe, so it’s unquestionably handy that we’re genetically predisposed to get a kick out of doing so.

And of course, in addition to the sense of feeling good that comes from doing things for others, what goes around often comes around. Even if you don’t overtly expect it, I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.

So how about looking for small ways to do things for others today? Here are some suggestions.

If you see someone in the street who looks lost, stop and help. Hold the door for a stranger and let them go first. Share your sandwich or chocolate bar. Praise someone in front of others, being specific about what they’ve done.

Secretly leave flowers on a neighbour’s doorstep. Or on a colleague’s desk. Bake someone a cake. Mend a puncture in their bicycle tyre. Take their dog for a walk. Offer to baby-sit to give them a night off.

Tell them you love them, and more importantly how much and why.

I know you’ll have your own thoughts, so why not embrace the spirit of generosity today? It’s in your gift.

Why generosity has little to do with money

Do you need to be well-heeled to be generous? Actually, I reckon money has precious little to do with it.

You can be generous with your praise.

A Mum, Dad and their four young children sat at the next table to me at breakfast one morning. The youngest occupied a high chair, all were impeccably behaved, so I complimented the parents as I got up to leave. Although it was no more than a few words from me, a total stranger, Mum and Dad looked momentarily surprised, then beamed in pride.


You can be generous with your time.

This has most impact when you feel as though you have little to give. Are you so busy that you’re ignoring someone important? Is your schedule really so full that you can’t give fifteen minutes to one of the people around you who’d really appreciate it? There are 96 quarter-hours today. Why not be generous with at least one of them?

You can be generous with your attention.

The next chance you have, why not go that extra mile to truly listen to someone you’re having a conversation with? Ask questions which allow them to elaborate on their stories, do your best to imagine yourself in their shoes, don’t change the subject until they’re ready to. Listen as hard as you can.

You can (and should always, please) be generous with your love.

In some aspects life may seem to move slowly, but inevitably our time together is finite. At the end of their days, do you think any man or woman has ever wished that they’d loved less? I think not. When you love someone, please let them know. Often.

Please give generously today, no matter how little you have in your purse or wallet.

Lending a hand, and giving yourself a boost.

You may remember, as I do, your very early school days when teachers might praise one child for doing something which helped another.

Perhaps someone helped another child carry something heavy, or they might have lent a hand when it came to tidying things away.


Helping others is generally seen as pro-social behaviour, something to be encouraged, something which helps to keep groups and communities glued together.

Helping others, too, feels good. And I don’t think it’s simply because we were conditioned to see it as good when we were young (although that’s possibly no hindrance to those positive feelings).

I think one very good side-effect of lending your help to someone is that when you’re busy doing a good deed you have less time to focus on your own worries, giving you a kind of mini-break from your hassles.

Don’t necessarily wait to be asked. Offer your help in a pro-active way. If a friend’s lawn is looking shaggy, rather than simply asking if you can cut it for them, re-frame the suggestion in a more assumptive manner: ‘I was thinking about mowing your lawn. Would that be OK with you?’

It may be a free gig but you’ve still got to talk them into it sometimes.

So who can you help? What can you do for them? And when are you going to suggest it to them?

Offer help without waiting to be asked

Altruism, of course, is unselfishly giving something to someone with no expectation of anything in return. This could be something physical, like goods or money, or it may be something less tangible, such as your time.

Some argue, however, that ‘pure’ altruism is never really possible. Why? Well, because there’s almost always a sense of satisfaction or gratification when you’ve given something away, an effect psychologists refer to as the ‘helper’s high’.


Years ago I asked a friend who was at the time working as a clinical psychologist in the British national health service for his top tip for helping a friend who was feeling low.

Without missing a beat he wholeheartedly recommended asking them to help you. Quite simply, he said, see if they’ll assist you with some small task. I think he was spot-on with this advice. It’s nice to be asked, and it feels good to help.

Knowing how this process works, maybe you can also use it to your own advantage on days when you’re not feeling completely great yourself? Don’t necessarily wait to be asked for your help, just roll up your sleeves and offer it.

So when’s a good time to do this? Well, how about this very day?

Choose kindness

Let me tell you about a brief interaction that just happened in a park in Santa Clara.

A man was sitting on a park bench when a mother appeared in the distance, pushing a stroller in which sat a small girl crying her eyes out.

Her mom, well at least I assume it was her mom, looked tired and exasperated.

Her daughter seemed unable or unwilling to stop screaming, no matter what mom said or did.


But then as they pulled level with the man, something interesting happened.

Instead of ignoring them or acting all grouchy at the noisy intrusion into his moment of peace, he smiled and waved at the little girl, and said “Hello”.

Instantly, instantly, her crying stopped, her eyes riveted to the man who’d spoken to her.

Mom chuckled appreciatively.

Peace returned – well, for another 50 yards or so at least – as the two continued down the pathway.

But the effect of this really quite small act by the man was indisputable.

Simply connecting with the tiny tot was enough to distract her, or comfort her, or surprise her (who knows what?) from her determined efforts to sob for her country.

I wonder if you recognise, as I did at that moment, that there are probably dozens of times a day when we have a choice about how we’ll react to the things that happen around us?

If someone pushes in front of you, it’s easy to get exasperated and huffy, but possible (although less easy) to just let it go, or even smile good-naturedly.

Small acts of kindness make the world a tiny bit better, and are generally good for the kind person too.

Perhaps I should have asked the man in the park how he felt when the small girl’s tears dried up, but I really didn’t need to.

It was me.