When we show kindness to others, we make a deliberate choice: to do something that’s intended to help someone else or make someone else feel better. But more and more, we’re discovering that being kind helps us to feel happier and healthier, too.
Some kind acts take real time and effort. They might include volunteering, running errands for people in need, becoming a mentor to a young person, cleaning up a nature area, building a ‘little free library’ for your front yard, giving blood, or organising a celebration for unsung heroes in the community.
Other kind acts are smaller, but they can still make a difference. For example, we might send a nice card to someone who’s going through a tough time, or write a ‘thank-you’ letter to someone who’s helped us in the past. Or we might bake someone a cake, help someone with their chores, donate blankets and towels to an animal shelter, or save our spare change for a good cause. Or we might just take a moment to connect with somebody who seems isolated.
We’ve especially enjoyed some of the lateral thinking about kindness that sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when we were all forced to stay apart, it was inspiring to see so many people finding ways to help others: connecting online with relatives who were isolated; sewing masks for friends; decorating windows and footpaths with beautiful pictures and messages; and creating gorgeous public displays like ‘spoonvilles’ to cheer up passers-by.
Sometimes it only takes a moment to lift someone else’s spirits. Small acts of kindness might include leaving a nice comment on someone’s social media, telling a friend something you admire about them, praising workers to their manager, or using your social media to share good-news stories and messages of gratitude, hope and inspiration.
Kindness is about helping others. But studies have found that people who act kindly also enjoy benefits themselves.
Doing kind things for other people, even just for a month or a week, makes us feel happier and more connected to others, and improves our self-esteem. We also tend to feel better and report improved wellbeing when we spend money to help other people, rather than just ‘treating ourselves’. For example, studies done in Canada and South Africa found that people who were given a small sum of money and told to spend it on a gift bag for a child in hospital felt better and happier than people who were told to buy a gift bag for themselves.
Even very small children can enjoy being kind to others. For example, researchers in Vanuatu and Canada took groups of toddlers and introduced them to friendly, lovable puppets who enjoyed ‘eating’ snacks. The toddlers were then guided to either share their own snacks with the puppets, or keep the snacks to themselves, or share someone else’s snacks instead. The researchers found that these young children showed the most happiness when they gave their own treats away.
Being kind to others can also help us to fit in socially. For example, one group of researchers took more than 400 primary school students in Vancouver and assigned some of them to perform three acts of kindness each week, for four weeks. These kind acts could be small things, such as sharing their lunch, cleaning up, or hugging a parent. By the end of the experiment, the researchers found that students in the ‘kindness’ group had become more popular and accepted by their classmates.
Even remembering past acts of kindness can lift our spirits. Several studies have found that people report feeling happier when they get into a habit of noticing and recalling the kind things they have done.
Best of all, kindness can become ‘contagious’. For example, one group of researchers took more than a hundred adults in a workplace in Spain, and assigned some of the workers to do acts of kindness for their colleagues for four weeks. These acts could include bringing someone coffee, buying them a small gift, or helping them with a task. During this time, something amazing happened; the ‘recipients’ of the acts of kindness changed their own behaviour and started spontaneously performing more kind acts themselves – almost three times as many as the control group – despite never having been told to do so.
Sometimes all it takes is a good example and a little inspiration to make kindness go viral.