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Kindness and Happiness at Work

Unlocking our untapped cooperative potential.

Key points

  • Kindness was a better predictor of happiness than income.
  • We found that people are kinder to colleagues and subordinates than they are to bosses.
  • And people expect their bosses and colleagues to be kinder than their subordinates.

Humans are extremely cooperative animals. We have lived in social groups for millions of years, and throughout that time have relied on one another to survive and thrive. Our finely honed abilities – to coordinate, collaborate, and resolve conflict – are largely responsible for our success as a species (Tomasello, 2014). In the modern world, this cooperative tendency is perhaps most often manifest in the formation of companies and corporations in which individuals work together to advance common goals of productivity and profit. In the U.S., over 100 million people work in small, medium, and large companies, and spend as much of their time at work as with their families and friends (Desilver, 2019; Ortiz-Ospina, 2020).

Not surprisingly, previous research has found that cooperative companies are more successful. A meta-analysis of over 200 studies has shown that organizational citizenship behaviors – “altruism, courtesy, conscientiousness, civic virtue, and sportsmanship” – are associated with happiness at work, as well as company productivity and profit (Podsakoff et al., 2009).

My colleagues and I conduct pure and applied research on the causes and consequences of kindness. Recently, we took a closer look at cooperation at work, using an innovative tool that measures the willingness of individuals to perform kind acts for bosses, colleagues, and subordinates (Curry et al., 2023). Broadly speaking, kindness can be understood as the willingness to pay a cost to benefit others (Curry et al., 2021). Our Company Kindness Questionnaire measures kindness by asking employees which of a series of 18 kind acts – previously rated for cost and benefit – they would do for a colleague, and which kind acts they would expect a colleague to do for them. The kind acts included holding the door open for a colleague, flagging a taxi cab and letting a colleague take it, or bailing a colleague out of jail. By identifying the point at which an individual switches from yes to no over a series of acts it is possible to infer a precise estimate of the cost they are willing to incur to benefit others.

We first piloted the Company Kindness Questionnaire with a skincare company, then rolled it out to companies across a variety of sectors. All told, participants (n=1,365) from six companies (in the beauty retail, apparel, social media app, higher education, food and beverage, and marketing sectors) completed the survey.

What did we find? Overall the level of kindness was very high: most people said that they would perform most of the acts on the list for their colleagues, and they expected that their colleagues would do the same for them. People were kinder to colleagues and subordinates than they were to bosses. And people expected their bosses and colleagues to be kinder than their subordinates.

We also found that kindness at work positively predicted happiness at work; and in fact, kindness was a better predictor of happiness than income. And we found that, while all forms of kindness predicted happiness at work, kindness to one’s boss stood out as the best predictor. This finding is consistent with previous research that has found that trust in leaders predicts a range of positive workplace outcomes including job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002).

Of course, this correlational study doesn’t show that being kind to your boss makes you happy (it may be that being happy makes you kinder to your boss). But it’s possible that having a boss who you trust, who you have confidence in, and who you're willing to go the extra mile for, is a particularly good indicator of the health of the company overall. And certainly, previous research has shown that helping others does have a causal effect on happiness in general (Curry et al., 2018), and at work (Chancellor et al., 2018). Future research should aim to test the causal effects of kindness on happiness at work experimentally.

How could people be kinder at work? Responses to open-ended questions in our survey provided some answers. Suggestions included: recognizing achievements (mention the contributions of a coworker when talking about a project), fostering camaraderie (ask a coworker how their family is doing), expressing gratitude (give a coworker a card or small gift), respecting work-life balance (wait until working hours to send a coworker an email), communicating courteously (be open to hearing ideas from a coworker and really listen to them), proving support (offer to take some tasks off of a busy coworker’s plate), being honest (provide constructive feedback to a coworker), and providing adequate company benefits (fully remote work, fair and equitable compensation, sufficient maternity or paternity leave, and strict anti-bullying policies).

Experimenting with kindness at work could be the key to unlocking our untapped cooperative potential.


Chancellor, J., Margolis, S., Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2018). Everyday prosociality in the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing. Emotion, 18(4), 507–517.

Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320–329.

Curry, O. S., Tunc, M., & Krasnow, M. (2023). Kindness and Happiness at Work.

Curry, O. S., Tunc, M., Wilkinson, J., & Krasnow, M. (2021). The costs and benefits of kindness.

Desilver, D. (2019). 10 facts about American workers. Pew Research Center.

Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 611–628.

Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2020). Who do we spend time with across our lifetime? Our World in Data.

Podsakoff, N. P., Whiting, S. W., Podsakoff, P. M., & Blume, B. D. (2009). Individual- and organizational-level consequences of organizational citizenship behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(1), 122–141.

Tomasello, M. (2014). The ultra-social animal. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(3), 187–194.

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