The third blog post from Dr. Carter’s Fall 2018 Social Psychology class is titled The Gift That Gives Back: How Being Kind Makes You Happier and was written by Kira Hunt, Yuri Chikada, Holly Garrett, and Jacob Plaster. Enjoy!
Aesop once said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Even the smallest acts of kindness (e.g. holding the door open for someone) don’t go unnoticed by the receiver of the action. It is also a reason that those who ask for help say that even the smallest bit helps. However, those it helps doesn’t just stop at the receiver of the act. One might even say that it makes people feel good to do good, specifically when performing acts that help either a family member, friend, or even a stranger.
Recent studies have examined the causal relationship between acts of kindness and well-being or happiness. In a systematic review and meta-analysis titled “Happy to help?” social psychology researchers Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitzd, John McAlaney, and Harvey Whitehouse analyzed twenty-seven experimental studies that tested the hypothesis that kindness causes wellbeing.
Common methods of the studies included asking participants to perform either a set number of acts of kindness or spend a given amount of money on others. For example, in one study, participants were asked in the following week to perform at least five acts of kindness per day and report not only the act but the responses of the recipient. They were then asked to self-report measures like happiness on scales. Some studies had control participants do nothing, others had the participants act kindly in a non-social activity, while some participants were asked to help themselves. For example, for prosocial purchases (i.e. spending money on others), the control was spending money on themselves.
The researchers found evidence proving their hypothesis of acts of kindness improving the wellbeing of the actor (i.e. the person performing the act of kindness). Humans are social beings, and it means that we have psychological mechanisms that motivate us to help others. These motivations include biological and sociological benefits.
Kindness towards genetic relatives is favored by natural selection as seen by parental care. Kindness towards members of the same group allows us to form and maintain groups which enhance belonging. Kindness is also seen to potentially improve individual status as it can impress others and potentially attract mates. We also see kindness towards people we may see again as being beneficial to cooperation and the rules of reciprocity.
We tend to see people who need help as some reflection of ourselves and it makes it difficult to ignore those people who need help. For example, if you dropped your papers in the middle of the road and those papers spread out, you need some help to collect them all. When we see others in similar situations, we visualize ourselves in that position and potentially the same feelings as those in the situation. After helping those people, we get satisfaction from doing so.
This satisfaction otherwise known as happiness is a psychological reward that proves that a problem was solved successfully. If someone acted in a kind way, they can get a good reaction from the person who needed help because the person who needed help had their problem solved. The person who helped made the situation better. It can improve their self-esteem. After that, they can understand how they should help in those situations.
There are some limitations of this research, however. Most of the studies had very small samples and many used non-clinical samples. Due to this, it’s not possible to say that those with specific mental problems are affected in the same way by performing acts of kindness. Several of the studies did not account for the motivation behind the acts, so motivation could possibly be another variable that leads to the results. It is possible that intention to help oneself rather than others could eliminate the effects of improved well-being. The studies also didn’t account for the variety of recipients (e.g. family members, strangers, friends, etc.) nor did they investigate any long-lasting effects. Most studies only investigated immediate effects. In align with the motivations previously mentioned, it is possible that certain people had improved wellbeing giving to the groups they belonged to, rather than groups they didn’t. Also, it is possible that this happiness is only a short-term effect and is not important in the long term.
Though there does seem to be an outcome of happiness from performing acts of kindness, the effect seems small in the grand scheme of things. Even still, kindness appears to be the best gift to give as it eventually gives back to you.
Citation: Curry, O. S., Rowland, L., Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., Mcalaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2016). Happy to Help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320-329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.014
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