When you hug your partner and express genuine compassion, or send a note in your young child's lunchbox letting her know you made that sandwich just for her, it's your good intentions—not just your nice behavior—that may significantly improve their day.

According to a University of Maryland researcher, the way we perceive another person's intentions can actually alter our physical experiences. Simply put: good intentions make a difference.

In a series of experiments published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Kurt Gray, author of "The Power of Good Intentions," found that the expression of good intentions can enhance all kinds of experiences.

Research Studies

Pain Study
In one study, Gray compared three groups of participants—each of whom received small electric shocks of the same intensity by their partner. The first group was told the shock was an accident, and was done without their partner's awareness. The second group was told they were being shocked on purpose, for no good reason. The third group of participants was told they were being shocked on purpose, but it was because another person was required to do that in order to help them win money. Participants in the third group indicated that they experienced significantly less pain than the other two groups, despite the fact that the strength of the shock was identical in all three groups.

Why does this study matter? After all, we're not routinely subjected to electrical shocks! Yet these findings can be applied to other aspects of our daily lives. For example, most of us (and our kids) have experienced some pain or discomfort during medical or dental procedures. Would this pain be diminished if these procedures were accompanied by a hefty dose of kindness and good intentions? Maybe bedside manner is more important than we realize.

Pleasure Study
In a different study, Gray compared the experiences of people who received a massage from an electronic massage pad to those who received a massage from their partner. Although the massages in the study were designed to be identical, massages from partners generated significantly greater pleasure than computerized massages.

The takeaway message from this experiment is that human connections (and the kindness that can accompany them) have the potential to make our experiences more enjoyable.  

Taste Study
In a third study, Gray gave subjects candy in a package with a note attached. Some participants received a note that said: "I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy." Other participants saw a note that read: "Whatever. I just don't care. I picked it randomly." The candy in the first group was not only described as better tasting, it was rated as significantly sweeter than the identical candy in the other group.

The sweet message we can learn from this candy study: even small gestures can make a big difference.

What You Can Do

How can you communicate good intentions in your home and community? Here are some suggestions:

Express yourself. It's always great when you do nice things for others, but be sure to let them know the feelings behind your behaviors. For example, instead of simply serving dinner to your family, you might say, "I know how much you all love Mexican food, and I made this recipe just for you." Instead of just giving a hug in the morning as everyone walks out the door, you might say, "I'll be thinking of you and hoping you have a great day."

Watch your body language. When you speak to your friend in a kind voice, or smile when your child tells you about his favorite activity in school, you can change the way they feel about themselves and their world. Your tone and your gestures can communicate a variety of messages. Pay attention to them! 

Repeat, repeat, repeat. The more opportunities you can find to convey sincere good intentions towards others—family, friends, co-workers—the better. Imagine being able to improve physical experiences simply by expressing kind words and actions. What an easy and powerful way to make a difference in the lives of others.   

How do you communicate good intentions? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

About the Author

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development.

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