We all want to live healthier, happier lives. Often, we look toward how we can improve ourselves to do so, but one of the best ways to boost our mental health is with kindness. While our kindness certainly helps the recipients and society as a whole, it also profoundly impacts our mental well-being.
There is extensive research surrounding kindness and how kindness improves mental health and well-being. Today, we’ll examine some of the top ways that kindness makes you happy, and happiness makes you kind.
First and foremost, it’s crucial to examine the relationship between kindness and mental wellness. One study conducted in the UK in 2009 gives insight into the connection between kindness and happiness¹. That study in the Journal of Social Psychology assigned 86 participants to three different groups. One group did daily acts of kindness for the next ten days, another group had to try something new each day for the next ten days, and the third group was the control. The study found that those in both the kindness and novel acts group experienced a significant boost in happiness, which suggests that kindness does improve our mental health.
An extensive review in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine had similar findings². The review found that altruism (which includes kindness) is associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity. As long as kindness does not overwhelm the person, it proves to be a great way to increase overall happiness and health.
Indeed, kindness is connected to mental well-being. When we are kinder, we experience greater happiness. Showing emotional and behavioral kindness and altruism regularly is one of the keys to living a happier, longer life.
Kindness improves mental health, allowing us to be happier and ultimately experience greater well-being. The way that kindness impacts our happiness may seem intuitive; it feels good to do good for others. While kindness as a happiness booster is certainly intuitive, it is also a lot more complicated than we may realize at first glance. Here are some of the ways that kindness improves mental health:
How we feel and think about ourselves has a significant impact on our happiness and mental wellness. Viewing yourself in a positive light is essential for happiness, and when we do good for others, we feel better about ourselves. A study in the Journal of Social Service Research examined the connection between volunteering and well-being³. The researchers found that self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social connectedness were all mediators of volunteering and well-being. Another study found that by their first year in elementary school, children could recognize kindness related to feeling better and more complete as a person⁴.
When we perform acts of kindness, we can form an identity for ourselves as a kind person—viewing ourselves as a kind person leads to higher self-esteem and a greater sense of purpose. We can experience this to an even greater degree when our acts of kindness connect with our personality or interests. For example, someone who loves children will feel incredibly fulfilled by getting involved in child activism or volunteering for a food drive that serves children.
Our social well-being, or connections with others, is essential for our happiness and mental health. As you might imagine, kindness opens up many doors for social connections. One study found that kindness to friends or acquaintances impacts our happiness most when it facilitates social connection⁵. It suggests that the social connection associated with kindness is a significant part of why kindness boosts our happiness.
Through kindness, we can strengthen relationships and open up opportunities for new connections. We’re able to connect with people we may have never met before when we donate to charity, and volunteering may allow us to meet and talk to new people. Kindness is a welcoming act that can allow new relationships to blossom, and it creates a stronger bond for our tightest ones.
Another way that kindness contributes to our social well-being, and ultimately our happiness, is by allowing us to right a wrong. We can use kindness to help repair relationships and to demonstrate our empathy for others⁶. When someone we care about it down, their sadness can quickly turn into our own. Doing something kind for that person provides us with the same relief as the recipient and can also make us feel like we are correcting a wrong (even if it was not our wrongdoing). Engaging in acts of kindness allows us to tackle different issues, whether with a friend of the world, improving our mood.
No matter who you help with your kindness, it often brings a smile to their face. According to leading theories in neuroscience, smiles, like other emotions, are contagious⁷. When we see someone else display an emotion, it activates the mirror neurons in our brain, as if we are experiencing it for ourselves. At the same time, we don’t always see the impact of our kindness, but we often do. Merely bringing a smile to someone else’s face can bring one to yours, helping to make you happier.
Kindness is typically not a one-way street. By showing kindness to those around you, you increase the likelihood that they will do the same for you. One of the reasons we are kind is to receive kindness back. Whether it’s directly or indirectly, you may get kindness back when you offer it to others⁸. Someone may show you kindness directly by helping you out the next time you need it because you showed kindness before. However, the kindness returned could also be indirect, like helping that person be more kind to others in the group, making everyone happier. When we receive kindness back, directly or indirectly, it comes back around to help our mood again. Keep in mind that this kind of reciprocity is not a demand to have kindness returned, but it is a social action that tends to happen.
As popular culture states, kindness does follow the “pay it forward” concept. Those who receive good tend to do good. One study tested this hypothesis with undergraduates and found many benefits for givers, including increased mood⁹. In addition, they also found that the majority of participants stated that they would pay it forward, and 40% already had! By doing acts of kindness, we can receive immediate mental health benefits. Still, we can also create a more prosocial environment with more people being kind, which will lead to many happier, healthier people, including ourselves.
Kindness does make us happier. Through all of the mechanisms above, it increases our overall well-being. But the story does not end there; kindness has a much more powerful effect. Not only does kindness make us happier, but being happier makes us kinder!
A study at the Harvard Business School in the Journal of Happiness Studies wanted to look at the more prolonged effects of happiness¹⁰. Researchers had the participants recall a previous purchase they either made for themselves or someone else. After doing so, the participants could choose whether to spend money on themselves or someone else. Those who recalled a purchase made for someone else reported being happier, but they also were more likely to choose to spend a monetary windfall on someone else shortly!
The results of the research are powerful. Kindness makes us happier. Happiness makes us kinder. It is a cycle that can keep on giving and ensuring our overall happiness and well-being.
Kindness is critical for several areas of wellness, including our social wellness, emotional wellness, and mental wellness. Acts of kindness can be huge, they can be planning a surprise party or getting an expensive gift, but they can also be very simple. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Kindness can be big or small, to friends, family, or strangers, but it is something we can all do more of. Living a life dedicated to kindness will result in your happiness and well-being, as well as that of others. As we can see, kindness is a powerful positive cycle that leads to more people being kind and more kindness from ourselves. If you’re looking for one easy, proven way to increase your happiness, turn to kindness.
(1) Buchanan, KE; Bardi, A (August 2010) Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction
(2) Post, SG (December 2005) Altuism, happiness, and health: it's good to be good
(3) Brown, KM; Hoye, R; Nicholson, M (June 2012) Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Social Connectedness as Mediators of the Relationship Between Volunteering and Well-Being
(4) Cotney, J; R. Banerjee (2019) Adolescents’ Conceptualizations of Kindness and its Links with Well-being: A Focus Group Study
(5) Aknin, LB; Dunn, E; Sandstrom, GM; Norton, MI (2013) Does Social Connection Turn Good Deeds into Good Feelings? On the Value of Putting the 'Social' in Prosocial Spending
(6) Samarrai, F (August 2013) Human Brains Are Hardwired For Empathy, Friendship, Study Shows
(7) The Charitable Brain (February 2017) How does your brain know what’s going on in my brain?
(8) Nowak, MA; Sigmund, K. Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Image Scoring / The Dynamics of Indirect Reciprocity
(9) Pressman, SD; Kraft, TL; Cross, MP (2015) It’s good to do good and receive good: The impact of a ‘pay it forward’ style kindness intervention on giver and receiver well-being
(10) Aknin, LB; Dunn, E; Sandstrom, GM; Norton, MI (April 2011) Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion: Evidence for a Positive Feedback Loop between Prosocial Spending and Happiness