HELPING others by carrying out random acts of kindness can also help local people be happier and even live longer.

Heaton-based psychotherapist and counsellor Anne-Marie Alger says that this week - National Random Acts of Kindness Week - is the ideal opportunity to do something for someone else or for the local community. "Kindness demonstrates caring, compassion, thoughts for the needs of others, generosity, consideration and goodwill," she explained. "Kindness isn't just about the big stuff, it's about the small actions we do and behaviours that we show on a daily basis - a smile, an acknowledgement, a compliment, a helping hand, an appreciation or a small gesture to show that we are thinking about someone."

And she pointed out that, as well as helping people on the receiving end, random acts of kindness can help the mental health of the person carrying it out. "When we do something for the good of others, we actually facilitate a positive physiological change in the brain associated with happiness," she stated. "Focusing on others can reduce stress and anxiety, and help us to reduce negative emotions. It keeps things in perspective and replaces our thoughts and feelings with evidence of positive actions, positive thinking and its associated feelings.

"Given the close, interchangeable relationship between physical health and mental health, practicing regular acts of kindness could actually result in us living longer."

The practice of doing small things for strangers has been around for centuries but the movement swept across America after the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation was created in Denver, Colorado in response to the city's "Summer of Violence" in 1993 when dozens of people were killed in gang-related shootings, including several children. The organisation borrowed writer and peace activist Anne Herbert's call for people to "practice random acts of kindness, and senseless acts of beauty", and the movement soon crossed into the UK.

Closer to home, last month an anonymous woman in Leyland left little envelopes around the town - in shops, pinned to trees and even taped to a parking meter - with lottery scratch cards, cash for parking or simply a note to pay for a coffee for the next customer through the door of a coffee shop. And just over a year ago, Over Hulton florist Beci Rice arranged "lonely bouquets" to leave in local parks and outside buildings for individual passersby to take home or give to a loved one.

Added Mrs Alger - a mum of four boys who is also a registered nurse and nurse tutor: "It's all about letting people know that they are important. It doesn't need to be anything that incurs a cost - it can be something as simple as picking up litter in the community or just helping someone. There is an expression 'the more you do for others, the more you do for yourself', so the benefits are both far-reaching and long-lasting all round."