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What is kindness?

How do we define something so encompassing as kindness? It can be as small as smiling at a stranger on the street. It can be as big donating a kidney to a relative in need. It is the action that leads from feelings of empathy and compassion. It asks for nothing in return. It is personal.

Kindness is an example of a prosocial behaviour—that is, a voluntary act that benefits others. As the name indicates, prosocial behaviours are good for society, which is a good reason in itself to be kind. However, its impact goes beyond its effects on the beneficiaries of kindnesses. Study after study has shown that prosocial behaviours such as kindness have positive effects not merely for the recipients of these acts, but for the person acting.

Why are we kind?

In “Happy to Help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor” (Curry, Rowland et al., 2016), the authors identify four potential evolutionary reasons for kindness: kin altruism (it’s good to be kind to your genetic relatives), mutualism (it’s good to be kind to members of your community), reciprocal altruism (it’s good to be kind to people who might be expected to be kind in return) and competitive altruism (it’s good to be kind to others if it will improve your social standing).

We are wired to perform things that are good for us, evolutionarily speaking, through positive feedback. That positive feedback can manifest as the warm and pleasant feeling that a person gets after they’ve made another person happy through being kind.

Its own reward?

It’s been known for many years that being kind is linked with a sense of happiness and wellbeing. Manucia, Baumann and Cialdini (1984) identify that happier people perform more acts of kindness, and this holds true for children as well as adults. A happy mood leads “to increased generosity both in adults (e.g., see Cunningham, 1979; Isen, Clark, & Schwartz, 1976; Isen & Levin, 1972; Kazdin & Bryan, 1971), who find altruism self-gratifying, and in young children (e.g., see Harden, Garber, Duncan, & Masters, 1981; Rosenhan et al., 1974), who do not.” Happiness is not only good for the individual, but for society.

More recent research has confirmed that we find acts of kindness rewarding, and being kind actually increases our personal sense of happiness. In some cases, this has been self-reported (eg Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008) and in others, it has been confirmed through neuroimaging (eg Tankersley, Stowe & Hutton, 2007). Psychologists at the University of Sussex have demonstrated that the areas of our brain linked with reward are activated when making altruistic prosocial decisions—or ‘being kind’ (Cutler and Campbell, 2019).

Good for the body and good for the mind

The triggering of our reward system releases ‘feel good’ chemicals like endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins are well known for their pain inhibiting properties, and oxytocin—the ‘love’ chemical—is known for its role in helping us bond with others. In addition, oxytocin is a natural antidepressant, and helps reduce negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.

Academics are naturally sceptical of eye-catching headlines about scientific research, which often range from the exaggerated to the downright misleading. However, when it comes to kindness, the research results are in, and they’re unanimous: kindness is good for you.

Quick resources






Curry, O. S., Rowland, L., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., PhD, & Whitehouse, H. (2016, September 21). Happy to Help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/ytj5s

Cutler, J., & Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. (2019). A comparative fMRI meta-analysis of altruistic and strategic decisions to give. Neuroimage, 184, 227-241.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Manucia, G. K., Baumann, D. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (1984). Mood influences on helping: Direct effects or side effects? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(2), 357.

Tankersley, D., Stowe, C. J., & Huettel, S. A. (2007). Altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency. Nature neuroscience, 10(2), 150-151.

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