Previous studies have suggested that people who engage in helping others are happier and have better mental and physical health than those who don’t spend as much time helping others. During hard times such as the pandemic, a body of research suggests that helping gestures assuage worry and concern. Often during emergencies and crises, people start performing acts of kindness at random. Helping others through a crisis by performing good deeds can make you feel in control—even give you bursts of euphoria called “the helper’s high” from dopomine and endorphin squirts released in the brain.
Medical studies show that the saliva of compassionate people contains more immunoglobulin A, which is an antibody that fights off infection. In addition to boosting the immune system, brain scans of benevolent people show that generosity gave them a calmer disposition, less stress, better emotional health and higher self-worth.
The obvious benefit when you reach out to help someone else is that you get a break from your own worries for a while. Contributing, giving, volunteering, donating and performing kind acts, no matter how small or brief, connect you to other people (and animals) in a deeply meaningful, humane way.
A new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin also suggests that performing acts of kindness and helping other people can be good for your health and well-being. But it goes into more detail showing that not all goodhearted behavior is equally beneficial to the giver. The strength of the link depends on many factors, including the type of kindness, the definition of well-being and the giver’s age, gender and other demographic factors.
“Prosocial behavior — altruism, cooperation, trust and compassion — are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society,” said lead author Bryant P.H. Hui, PhD, a research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. “It is part of the shared culture of humankind, and our analysis shows that it also contributes to mental and physical health.”
To better understand what drives that variation, Hui and his colleagues performed a meta-analysis of 201 independent studies, comprising 198,213 total participants, that looked at the connection between prosocial behavior and well-being. Overall, they found that there was a modest link between the two. Although the effect size was small, it is still meaningful, according to Hui, given how many people perform acts of kindness every day.
Digging deeper into the research, Hui and his colleagues found that random acts of kindness, such as helping an older neighbor carry groceries, were more strongly associated with overall well-being than formal prosocial behavior, such as scheduled volunteering for a charity. That may be because informal helping is more casual and spontaneous and may more easily lead to forming social connections, according to Hui. Informal giving is also more varied and less likely to become stale or monotonous, he said.
The effects varied by age, according to Hui, who began this research at the University of Cambridge. Younger givers reported higher levels of overall well-being and psychological functioning, while older givers reported higher levels of physical health. Also, women showed stronger relationships between prosociality and several measures of well-being compared with men — perhaps because women are stereotypically expected to be more caring and giving, and thus derive a stronger sense of good feelings for acting in accordance with those social norms, according to the study.
Other studies have shown that a priority of what American workers want and need is more compassion and empathy from their managers and business leaders. With this new research, it only makes sense that workplace compassion from top to bottom can increase well-being and psychological functioning so that workers at all levels win from enhanced job satisfaction, engagement, performance and the company’s bottom line.
Bryant P. H. et al. (2020). Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being. Psychological Bulletin. DOI: 10.1037/bul0000298