Although happiness is often considered an elusive and abstract state, we all try to obtain as much of it as possible. In her book “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky (2008) presents twelve activities that have been researched scientifically and which show that it is possible to increase our level of happiness when putting them into practice. In this article, I wish to outline some of the findings on kindness, which is a key strategy to enhance our wellbeing.
What is kindness?
Kindness can be described as a human behaviour based on ethical predispositions. It is considered a virtue in most cultures. An act of kindness is usually an unplanned and voluntary action towards another person or group of people.
There is a broad consensus about kindness as to be morally good. However, being kind can be seen not only under a moral or ethical umbrella, but also from a scientific point of view.
Although it was well known that acts of kindness can make people happy, it was not until 2003 that Sonja Lyubomirsky, Chris Tkach and James Yelverton investigated this principle using a scientific approach. The results of their research showed that an act of kindness has a positive impact not only on the person that receives but also on the person that carries out this act.
Kindness and timing
In their experiment, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues asked participants to do five random acts of kindness in one week, during six weeks. Participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked to carry out the five acts any time they liked within that week, the other group was asked to do the five acts on one day every week. Surprisingly, the results of the experiment showed that although all participants considered themselves more helpful after the six-week-period, only those who had done their acts of kindness on one single day reported a considerable increase in their own happiness. The study concludes that the impact of five acts of kindness spread over the course of a week is lower than five acts committed on one single day, probably because five acts committed over seven days “blend” with general kind behaviour and therefore get lost. This means that the timing of when and how often we do an act of kindness is important.
Kindness and variety
In another study, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Matthew Della Porta (2010) asked participants to do acts of kindness over 10 weeks. The results showed that those who used a variety of acts were notably happier both right after the test and after one month. However, participants who had been told to carry out the same acts throughout the test period, turned out to be less happier during the experiment and recovered their previous level of happiness only after the test period was over. The reason may be found in the hypothesis that carrying out the same acts of kindness over several weeks can become a meaningless habit or chore. Like the timing in the aforementioned experiment, this shows that the variety of the acts of kindness we propose – or carry out ourselves – is vital if we want to achieve a higher level of happiness.
Kindness and the domino effect
But timing and variety are not the only key aspects to achieve a higher level of happiness when engaging in acts of kindness. James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (2010) carried out a study on kindness, cooperative attitudes and contagion, and the results could not have been more encouraging.
The research showed that people who have received an act of kindness are prone to help other people, initiating a sequence of cooperation that spreads amongst many more people. In one of the experiments, one person gives money to support another person. The generosity leads to a domino effect, in which three more people become involved, later nine and in the end the money that had been given by the person in the first round is tripled by the other people. The participants in this study had never seen each other before, which means that it can be excluded that their motives for giving were determined by relatedness. According to Christakis, after studying human social networks as well as genetic conditions, it can be concluded that there is a profound and vital relation between social interaction and kindness.
Kindness in relation to social background, age and geographical aspects
In another attempt to measure the effects of kindness, Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton (2008) carried out a large investigation in 136 countries to analyze the connection between charitable giving and increased well-being, with the result that people, no matter how poor or rich their country is (some of the participants had hardly enough money to buy food for themselves), experience a higher level of happiness when they spend money in order to help others. Even babies, when asked to share with their puppet the treats they had received from the assistants, showed a higher level of happiness after following that suggestion. They were happier when giving treats away than when receiving, and they showed the highest level of happiness when they shared their own treats with their puppets, as opposed to using the treats they had received from the research assistants.
Is kindness set in stone?
So far, the studies presented in this article show that people of all ages and backgrounds can experience a higher level of happiness when they engage in acts of kindness.
A question that might arise when analyzing these findings is to what extent we are able to modify or increase our level of kindness, for it seems logical that people do not share the same predisposition. An answer to this question was given by Helen Weng and her colleagues (2013) in a research that suggests that our altruistic behaviour can be systematically modified by training.
Random acts of kindness
We can find countless examples of random acts of kindness in scientific literature as well as in books and on websites.
However, in order to integrate some personal findings, I have conducted a brief survey among clients and colleagues. I asked them to name one act of kindness that had consistently raised their level of happiness when carried out. These are some of the replies given by the participants:
“I used to work in a local organization that helps children at risk of social exclusion. Whenever we prepared activities with them and while carrying them out, I experienced a sense of purpose and wellbeing”.
“I invited an orphan to go shopping. We bought clothes and toys and then we had lunch together. I felt happy and blessed”.
“I like to give time, attention and company. We have an empty chocolate box at home with little vouchers in it (a bike ride, sleeping all of us in the big bed, a Sunday in pyjamas, a big hug, etc.). Whenever my children do something good, they are allowed to take a voucher. That way they value effort and reward and they know that there is also something positive after a good deed”.
“I provided accommodation for one of “Freedom from Torture”‘s victims, so they could have a weekend break or longer. It made me happy”.
“I helped people in need moving flat. The result was they didn’t have to pay anything for the transport and we were both happy”.
“I am helping my nephew financially and as a mentor to develop his career. I feel very happy to be able to support somebody who needs and values this help”.
“I was in the queue in the supermarket and an old lady ahead of me felt really embarrassed because she had forgotten her credit card. She had to pay 35 euros, but had only 30 euros in cash. The shop assistant told her to leave some of the products behind but I offered her 5 euros and everything was settled. The woman was very grateful and I felt very happy.”
“I often donate blood. I don’t know if you can consider this an act of kindness, but I usually feel very good about it, although I must admit there are times when I think that donating blood should be compulsory.”
“I like to take my grandmother for a walk. She is 85 and quite frail, but I know it does her good and we are both happy together”.
“I recently prepared a surprise dinner for my husband, my parents and our closest friends. They loved it and I felt very happy seeing how much they enjoyed it”.
We know that kindness is a powerful gesture to make other people feel good, and theoretically, it should not be necessary to highlight its benefits. However, it is relatively unknown that random acts of kindness have been thoroughly investigated by a considerable number of scientists. The results of these investigations – some of which have been pointed out in this article – show that kindness has a huge positive impact both on the receiver and on the person who carries it out.
What could YOU do today to make another person happy?