In Brief

Random acts of kindness may bring more joy than expected ones, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 1). However, people predict just the opposite: that a gift easily explained--perhaps with a clear purpose and sender--will bring them more joy than one without an obvious explanation, found the study led by Timothy Wilson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

The researchers discovered this effect by handing 39 randomly selected undergraduate college students in a cafeteria an index card with a dime and a dollar coin taped to the paper. Half of the students' cards explained the amount of money attached to the card by noting that the gift came from the 110th chapter of the "Smile Society," while the other students did not receive information as to why they received $1.10. All the cards said, "Have a nice day!"

A second experimenter approached the students within a few minutes of receiving the card and handed them a questionnaire on which they ranked their mood on a nine-point scale. They also rated how much each of six emotion words--cheerful, pleased, frustrated, confused, alert and agitated--applied to their current emotional state.

The students who had received the less informative card reported a more positive mood than the other students.

In a follow-up study, the researchers asked 29 students to predict which card would make them happier, and 76 percent predicted--wrongly--they would prefer to have an explanation. These findings, says Wilson, illustrate a "pleasure paradox": People seek to control and predict their worlds, but in the case of positive events, surprises and inexplicable happenings make people happier. This may be because unexplained phenomena loom larger in the mind than things people easily understand, he speculates.

"Things that are novel and exciting trigger intense emotional reactions," says Wilson. "Once we transform them into commonplace or ordinary events, they lose that ping of emotional intensity."