Why Kindness Matters
The benefit of a kindness practice
What is Kindness?
The dictionary definition of kindness "is the quality of being gentle, caring, and helpful. A kindness is a helpful or considerate act". This definition has been further refined by KindLab, a part of Kindness.org, that investigates the causes and consequences of kindness. Their definition of kindness clearly states "Kindness is an Action intended to Benefit others typically accompanied by an emotional component". But what do I mean when I talk about kindness? I love the definition by Kindlab, it makes it clear it is an act whose intention is to benefit others. But personally I have widened the "others" to include not only people but also the planet too. That is why the weekly kindness challenge focuses not only on being kind to others but also on acts that will benefit the planet too.
So apart from the obvious benefit such a practice would bring to others and the planet, why should you consider including acts of kindness as part of your daily routine? Well it seems that performing acts of kindness might actually be beneficial to the giver!
Acts of kindness have been shown to boost well being and happiness
There is a wealth of studies that investigate the effect of kindness on well being and happiness . In these studies they generally reflect kindness either by instructing participants to perform acts of kindness to others or by giving them some money and allowing them to choose whether to spend it on themselves or others (prosocial spending). But these studies have shown that both prosocial spending and acts of kindness boost the well being and happiness of the giver (1-4).
So this is great, if you perform acts of kindness you may ultimately feel happier! But does it matter who the "other" person is? Do you feel happier by giving to a friend or family member? In most cases the studies don't determine who the recipient is. But in a recent study carried out at the University of Oxford, that included 683 volunteers, they compared acts of kindness to strong social ties (family and friends), weak ties (strangers), novel acts of self kindness, and observing acts of kindness, against a no acts control. The participants were asked to carry out (or actively attempt to observe) at least 1 act of kindness every day for 7 days. What they found was that performing acts of kindness over 7 days increased happiness and this was true for all groups, meaning it didn't matter whether it was an act of kindness to a family member, stranger, kindness to yourself or indeed just observing acts of kindness. All of these activities resulted in an increase in happiness (5).
Acts of Kindness are contagious
But do these small acts of kindness really make a difference? I know it is really easy to think that I am only one person, what effect can I really hope to have? Well according to the scientific literature it appears that acts of kindness are contagious (6)!
One kindness study that investigated the effect of kindness, including the potential to pay it forward was performed at the Spanish HQ for Coca Cola (2). They investigated the effect of practising, receiving and observing everyday acts of kindness in the workplace by randomly assigning people to be givers, receivers or controls. The givers were instructed to perform 5 random acts of kindness every week over a period of 4 weeks to receivers. In keeping with the fact that kindness can boost happiness, the givers and receivers both reported an increase in well being. But what was really fascinating was that the receivers spontaneously started to perform their own acts of kindness! In fact they performed about three times more prosocial behaviours than the controls, which was approximately a 7% increase/week. And it wasn't just reciprocal acts back to the people they had received their acts of kindness from, it was to other people in the company, spreading the kindness further! How beautiful is that.
I particularly like this study as it was based in a workplace, looking at the effect of acts of kindness between co-workers. If you have read my first blog about why I set up Small Kindness you will know that one of the reasons was due to the lack of kindness at work. But this study highlights the beneficial impact a little kindness can have, the acts of kindness reported were just small acts of kindness - getting a colleague a coffee or helping them with a task, but they ended up spreading throughout the company and improved the well being of the whole institution. In fact the authors conclude that:
"...although everyday prosocial acts may be small, they are not insignificant. The benefits of prosociality do multiply, favoring not only those who give but also those who receive and observe."
But as well as being contagious there is evidence that the acts of kindness or prosocial spending can actually increase within a social network or community. Work by Fowler and Christakis in 2010 (7) showed that cooperative behaviour cascades in human social networks showing that altruism could spread up to 3 degrees of separation (from person to person to person to person) and tended to become greater.
It seems that small acts of kindness may have the power to spread and grow into something greater than the original act.
So, why else would you consider including acts of kindness as part of your routine?
Acts of Kindness are never forgotten
I love this quote by Maya Angelou and it is something I truly believe - acts of kindness are not forgotten. I remember on the day of my PhD viva exam, I was absolutely terrified (like physically unable to stop shaking terrified) and one of the postdocs in my new lab - who I had only known for a short time- came up to me and gave me a hug and wished me good luck. I think she had seen how absolutely terrified I looked and wanted to give me some comfort and encouragement. This happened 16 years ago, I still remember that very simple act of kindness and it still makes me smile (thank you Azra). This is just one example of many wonderful and beautiful acts of kindness I remember, but I thought this was a lovely one to share as it shows how it doesn't have to be a grand, expensive gesture, it can just be something as simple as a hug that will be remembered forever.
Importance of kindness now
During this time when we all feel less than connected and more apart from our friends and family than ever before, kindness could be the way toward connection and a sense of community. This is beautifully illustrated by where I live! When we went into the first lockdown in the UK a lady on my street went around everyone's house with a leaflet to set up a street Whatsapp group so that we could all help one another - get food and prescriptions for those having to self isolate and the like. It has been a great way for us to feel like a community and I see daily (sometimes hourly!) examples of neighbours helping one another. It has even resulted in a weekly street collection for the local foodbank - more community spirit in action. This really clearly shows how one act of kindness (setting up a street Whatsapp group) has resulted in multiple acts of kindness everyday!
Small Kindness weekly challenge - starting a Kindness Practice
I hope that this article will inspire you to think about starting a kindness practice. I really do believe that kindness matters and small changes can make a big difference. That is why I set up the Small Kindness weekly challenge. It isn't meant to be a competition or something that people find stressful. But to be more of a prompt, an intention.
I think we all have room to show a bit more kindness and focusing on an act of kindness to people, to the planet and to yourself each week should be a good way to encourage, motivate and inspire others to spread a little more kindness. Also we know from a number of the studies that just an increased awareness of kindness can improve your happiness.
So although I hope the weekly challenge will encourage people to spread a little kindness, if it just makes you more mindful of kindness and that makes you feel happy then that is great too! It doesn't matter if you don't manage all of these acts every week, but each little step, change and act will make a difference.
And they don't have to be huge, expensive, time consuming acts. For spreading kindness to people it could be as simple as smiling at a stranger, thanking the delivery person, checking in on a loved one, giving someone a hug, setting up a street Whatsapp group, donating to a local foodbank or giving unwanted clothes to charity.
For the planet it can just be about simple swaps - soap instead of body wash, reusable water bottle instead of water in single use plastic, or simple actions such as turning the lights out when you leave a room.
And finally showing yourself some kindness - this is just about being mindful to be kind to yourself. Whether that is spending 15 minutes doing something that you love, or maybe just talking to yourself with a little more kindness.
Together these actions each week will help to spread kindness - a little ripple. And the more little ripples the greater the effect and what a wonderful thing that is to be part of. So if you do decide to take part, please let me know how you get on - what acts you have done, received or just witnessed and I will share them liberally with you all as we all need a little more kindness in our lives. A Small Kindness from me to you, with love xx
- Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. JESP. 2018; 76: 320-329.
- Chancellor J, Margolis S, Jacobs Bao K, Lyubomirsky S. Everyday prosociality in the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing. Emotion. 2018 Jun;18(4):507-517.
- Aknin LB, Dunn EW, Proulx J, Lok I, Norton MI. Does spending money on others promote happiness?: A registered replication report. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2020 Aug;119(2):e15-e26.
- Dunn EW, Aknin LB, Norton MI. Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science. 2008 Mar 21;319(5870):1687-8.
- Rowland L, Curry OS. A range of kindness activities boost happiness. J Soc Psychol. 2019;159(3):340-343.
- https://kindness-is-contagious.com/social-networks-spread-altruism/ Accessed 3rd March 2021
- Fowler JH, Christakis NA. Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Mar 23;107(12):5334-8.
I am Kelly Townsend and this is the Small Kindness Blog. I am a scientist, a bee lover, a rewilding obsessive, and I want to spread Small Kindnesses through the medium of soap. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for your daily dose of kindness (as well as to see how the soap making is going!)