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Small Acts of Kindness Boost Resilience in Surprising Ways

Doing something helpful for someone else benefits both the giver and receiver. 

Source: Pixabay

"Spread a Little Sunshine" is a song from the musical Pippin that holds some timeless wisdom about the self-serving and universal benefits of small acts of kindness. The lyrics: "When I help others, I'm really helping myself . . . If we all could spread a little sunshine and lend a helping hand, we all would be a little closer to the promised land."

It may seem opportunistic or selfish to view being a "do-gooder" as a way to help yourself—but evolutionary psychologists speculate that what looks like "selfless acts of altruism" on the surface may have evolved as a way for our species (as a collective) to survive and flourish. Ultimately, cooperative behavior and small acts of kindness may provide a selective advantage to the "altruist" in the form of various return benefits. (See, "The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism")

In their 2012 paper, "Two Key Steps in the Evolution of Human Cooperation: The Interdependence Hypothesis," Michael Tomasello of Duke University and co-authors write, "Modern theories of the evolution of human cooperation focus mainly on altruism. In contrast, we propose that humans’ species-unique forms of cooperation—as well as their species-unique forms of cognition, communication, and social life—all derive from mutualistic collaboration (with social selection against cheaters)."

Now, for the first time, new research (Hayhurst et al., 2019) suggests that one of the return benefits of helping someone else may be an uptick in resilience for those who "spread a little sunshine" and lend a helping hand after a tragedy.

According to a new study from the University of Otago in New Zealand, small acts of kindness intended to benefit victims after a tragedy also appear to strengthen the resilience and well-being of the person performing the act of kindness. This research paper, "Encouraging Flourishing Following Tragedy: The Role of Civic Engagement in Well-Being and Resilience," was recently published in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology.

After the Christchurch terror attacks, many people donated home-cooked meals, sent flowers, and performed other acts of condolence for family members of survivors and to honor the deceased. The New Zealand researchers found that these acts of kindness benefited both the giver and the receiver.

"There's a growing body of evidence that shows civic engagement is not just good for the people we are helping, but also for our own well-being. This research shows that one way to ensure we are able to confront challenges or adversity in our future is by getting involved in your community, volunteering, or helping a neighbor," lead author, Jill Hayhurst, said in a statement. Hayhurst is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Otago.

For this study, Hayhurst and colleagues surveyed 530 people (ages 16 to 32) who were touched by the Christchurch incident about civic engagement, resilience, and overall well-being. According to the researchers, this is the first study to identify a clear link between civic engagement and resilience.

In the paper's conclusion, the authors sum up their findings, "In times of challenge and tragedy it can be easy to consider our own well-being as unimportant or trivial, especially compared to those who directly suffered from the terror attack. We argue, based on the literature and the results from the present study, that contributing to society and supporting our own well-being are two sides of the same coin—by being engaged and contributing, we bolster our well-being and become more resilient."

Hayhurst points out that the study has some limitations and that more research is needed. In particular, because this study was cross-sectional and only looked at one moment in time after a tragedy, the authors recommend that future research should include longitudinal studies that explore the role that social identity and community belonging play in outcomes related to civic engagement.

Resilience Research Analysis Reminds Us: "It's Okay When You're Not Okay."

Last year, a review of contemporaneous resilience research (Infurna & Luthar, 2018), by psychologists at Arizona State University, encouraged future studies on resilience to analyze multidimensional psychological measures and advised that longitudinal surveys should be administered at frequent intervals.

Notably, the ASU researchers also found that most people who are blindsided by adversity or a tragedy tend to struggle for a while and then bounce back, but that this process of recovery can take longer than previously observed in other resilience research.

 Rob Ewing, Arizona State University Department of Psychology
The graph shows some possible response patterns in adults following adversity. The top line (hashed) shows the response that has been reported as the most common. This flat line indicates that living through an adverse event causes minimal or no disruption to psychological functioning. When the data are analyzed with growth mixture models that are set up using appropriate assumptions, the most common response pattern after adversity is shown by the bottom line. The most common response to adversity is a decrease in psychological functioning followed by a return to normal or near-normal after a period of time.
Source: Rob Ewing, Arizona State University Department of Psychology

"The idea that 'it is okay to not be okay' following adversity is important," Frank Infurna said in a statement. "Sometimes it can take months or years to recover after a traumatic or upsetting event because resilience depends on the person and the resources they have available to them, their past experiences and the type of adverse event."

"It is very important for the public and for policy-makers to know what a normal or common response to adversity is," Suniya Luthar added. "This knowledge can help people avoid self-blame when they are hurting or have a setback in the aftermath of a major loss or other traumatic event. And it can help clinicians and policy-makers continue to provide support resources that are often critical in helping adults overcome major life adversities."


Jill G. Hayhurst, John A. Hunter, and Ted Ruffman. "Encouraging Flourishing Following Tragedy: The Role of Civic Engagement in Well-Being and Resilience." New Zealand Journal of Psychology (First Published: April 2019)

Frank J. Infurna and Suniya S. Luthar. "Re-Evaluating the Notion That Resilience Is Commonplace: A Review and Distillation of Directions for Future Research, Practice, and Policy." Clinical Psychology Review (First published online: July 18, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2018.07.003

Michael Tomasello, Alicia P. Melis, Claudio Tennie, Emily Wyman, and Esther Herrmann. "Two Key Steps in the Evolution of Human Cooperation: The Interdependence Hypothesis." Current Anthropology (First published: December 2012) DOI: 10.1086/668207

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