Are Acts of Kindness Good For You?

Research explores the impact of helping others

Posted Oct 26, 2016

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

The idea of kindness benefiting do-gooders is a pop psychology phenomenon. Notable scholars promote the benefits of kindness – both personally and across society. There is an international Random Act of Kindness Foundation that encourages individuals across the globe to do nice things for each other. And teaching kindness is a top priority for parents and educators. A recent survey by Sesame Workshop the educational nonprofit behind Sesame Street, found 86 percent of teachers and 70 percent of parents think teaching students to be kind should be a higher priority.

There’s no denying that kindness is a good thing. But what about the claims that doing good is actually good for you?  Does acting kind actually boost your own happiness too?

British researchers published a systematic review last month that asks this exact question. They combined the data from 21 studies to measure how acts of kindness affect the person who is being kind. They found that people who are kind experience a moderate improvement in their well-being, but the effect is not as large as the popular media often asserts.

The researchers also identified a gap in the literature on kindness.  Many of the studies testing the benefits of kindness do not include specific details about the nature of the kind acts. For example, does showing kindness to a random stranger, such as paying someone else’s coffee, boost your happiness more than showing kindness to someone you know? And what about showing kindness to friends and family, such as surprising your husband by cooking his favorite meal? 

Researchers also highlight the various motivations for kindness.  For example, if you just moved to a new town, you are more likely to show kindness to the people you meet because you want to make friends. Likewise, parents are biologically programmed to show kindness to their own children.  

Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, is the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. He explains that human beings are social animals who naturally want to help others.

“Our review suggests that performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction,” he said.

But instead of performing random acts of kindness, he advocates for targeting kindness toward people who need it most.

“Through sheer chance and serendipity, random acts of kindness may have desirable consequences, perhaps in ways that could not have happened otherwise,” he writes. “But by their very nature, random acts are unlikely to be directed towards those who need them, or might appreciate them, the most. And we have shown that their effects are relatively modest. Could better outcomes be achieved for the same amount of effort? Might non-random acts of kindness have greater effects than random acts of kindness to strangers?”

So, yes, acts of kindness can help others and boost your own wellness. But the details likely matter much more than we can understand through the current research. And instead of paying the toll of the car in line behind you, why not make a donation to your local food bank and prepare a meal for a grieving family?  While everyone can use a little kindness, it’s more likely to make a difference to people in need.