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Acts of Kindness Can Aid Well-Being, Study Shows

Kindness with neighbor

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Key Takeaways

  • Behavior that relies on cooperation and altruism can increase your sense of well-being, a recent study suggests.
  • Researchers said kindness tends to have a modest connection to health and psychological function, but can have a significant impact on community health.
  • Certain types of kindness are more powerful than others; those that are unplanned tend to fuel overall well-being.

Behavior based on cooperation, compassion, trust, and altruism can boost individual and community well-being, especially in the midst of COVID-19, according to new research in Psychological Bulletin.

Looking at 201 studies of these types of behaviors, categorized as "prosocial" activity, researchers found there is a modest connection to improved physical and mental health but a more significant association with societal changes. That could have a cumulative effect over time, according to Bryant Hui, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong.

What This Means For You

You may get only a minor wellness boost from prosocial behavior in the short-term, but as your actions—and those of your neighbors—help a community, that seed of well-being could flourish into greater benefits later.

Not All Acts of Kindness Are Equal

One of the largest examples of prosocial behavior is volunteerism, says Hui, but in the meta-analysis, the researchers noted that unplanned and unstructured moments of helping others tended to be the most powerful for wellness.

"Informal helping was linked to more well-being benefits," Hui notes. "This could be because spontaneity brings greater meaning for some people. Helping an elderly neighbor carry groceries, for example, offers a prosocial boost for both sides. But if you're part of a volunteer event to help elderly neighbors, it could feel more like an obligation, even a chore."

That's not necessarily a disadvantage, he adds, and it doesn't mean opting for in-the-moment kindness instead of planned volunteer efforts. Both types have their place, Hui believes.

"Prosocial behavior, in any way, should be a universal value that's practiced as much as possible, especially right now with COVID-19 and other struggles happening in the world," he says. "These behaviors are part of the shared culture of humankind. They bring us together, and they increase well-being not just for ourselves, but for everyone."

Meaning vs. Happiness

Differences in helping others weren't the only discovery in the meta-analysis. Researchers also noted these findings around prosocial behavior:

  • Younger people get more of an emotional uplift, while older people report improved physical health effects.
  • Women tend to have more connections between well-being and prosociality than men, particularly with psychological function.
  • The effect of prosociality was more pronounced in creating feelings of meaning and self-realization than in promptings feelings of happiness.

"One of the aspects of the research that stands out the most is the difference between eudaimonic and hedonic well-being, which is purpose as compared to pleasure," says Hui.

While moments of happiness are important, they tend to be fleeting, he adds. It's that cultivation of eudaimonic well-being, when we feel a greater meaning in what we do, that can have a cumulative effect for psychological and physical health.

Bryant Hui, PhD

These behaviors are part of the shared culture of humankind. They bring us together, and they increase well-being not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

— Bryant Hui, PhD

First Step Toward Kindness

Finding opportunities to be more giving to others, in ways that are both planned and spontaneous, can help to increase prosocial behavior. But it also helps to show kindness toward yourself first, advises Christine Carter, PhD, sociologist and senior fellow of Greater Good Science Center at University of California Berkeley.

For those who are attempting to balance a great deal right now—working from home, schooling, child care, helping older relatives, navigating through economic and political uncertainty—putting one more large effort into place like volunteering can have the opposite effect on well-being.

"Like the old saying goes, 'You can't drink from an empty cup,'" she says. "In practicing more compassion, kindness, and care, make sure you feel nourished and replenished enough to give to others, especially right now."

Self-care isn't all bubble baths and jumbo glasses of wine, she adds, even though it tends to prompt a perception of indulgence. In fact, it can be tough work. Some strategies to consider might be:

  • Establishing a daily routine
  • Exercising consistently, or at least moving more often
  • Creating a space designated as yours alone, especially in a multi-person household
  • Sticking to a bedtime ritual
  • Cutting yourself some slack and taking regular breaks

As you implement measures like these to be prosocial toward yourself, Carter says it will be easier to extend that to others—and reap the benefits along the way.

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  1. Hui BPH, Ng JCK, Berzaghi E, Cunningham-Amos LA, Kogan A. Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-beingPsychol Bull. 2020. doi:10.1037/bul0000298

  2. Coyne LW, Gould ER, Grimaldi M, Wison KG, Baffuto G, Biglan A. First things first: parent psychological flexibility and self-compassion during COVID-19. Behav Anal Pract. 2020:1-7. doi:10.1007/s40617-020-00435-w