A good piece of news from the 2023 World Happiness Report is that rates of kindness are increasing. This was judged by more people having helped a stranger, donated money or goods or taken part in volunteering compared to data from previous years. In this blog I take a look at the concept of kindness in Positive Psychology. I review how it is conceptualised, what the impacts and functions of it are seen to be and why it is important.
Can we define kind?
Although kindness is valued across cultures and religious traditions it is not that easy to define. It is considered a strength in the VIA taxonomy, part of the virtue of humanity and the term is often used interchangeably with that of altruism or prosociality. A kind act is considered to be one that has a perceived benefit for the receiver of the act usually coupled with a perceived cost for the actor. Both greater benefits and greater costs tend to mean acts are rated as “kinder”. Kindness as a trait or characteristic is seen as the tendency to frequently and reliably perform kind acts. As you can see there is a lot of potential interpretation going on in these definitions. How are costs and benefits evaluated and by whom? How can you really know the intention of the actor and does this matter? How often constitutes frequently/reliably? Does context and culture make a difference? At an individual level kindness could be considered as performing acts intended to benefit others, but we all know how our good intentions can sometimes backfire. Are these acts kind or not? Is intention or outcome more important? You might also ask how kindness relates to my favourite topic of compassion. There is a lot of overlap. However, compassion necessitates awareness of suffering in another and the motivation to respond by action. It is possible to be kind to anyone regardless of whether they are suffering or not.
Evolution and kindness
Why are we kind? Researchers have looked at the role of evolution in selecting kindness traits. Humans are a social species and our survival and development has relied on us being able to co-operate and function in groups. Therefore certain types of kindness evidenced in the research literature can be understood in terms of the benefits they bring for survival and reproduction:
- Kin altruism: We are more likely to be kind to those related to us as this increases the likelihood of our genes being passed on.
- Mutualism: People are more likely to be kind to those in their groups and communities as such cooperation promotes group protection, loyalty and commitment (sometimes at the expense of other groups).
- Reciprocal altruism: People tend to be kind to those who might be in the position to return the favour hence improving survival or status chances for the future.
- Competitive altruism: Kind acts which impress others and enhance social status or make the actor more attractive to potential mates also confer a survival advantage.
Altruistic or kind behaviour has subsequently become embedded in social, cultural and spiritual norms as desirable and is thus shaped and reinforced by these systems to the extent and in the ways it is valued.
What is the impact of kindness?
Kindness is a popular topic in PP due to the research suggesting that prosocial behaviour has benefits for the actor as well as the recipient of kindness. A range of research has suggested that acting kindly is associated with increased happiness, decreased stress and mental ill health, improved immunity, reduced blood pressure and other positive health markers. The idea of carrying out random acts of kindness as an intervention to address a range of social problems has been somewhat oversold in “pop psychology”. Much of the research is based on correlational studies which don’t help us understand the causal relationship between kindness and its health effects. However, recent reviews suggest there is a genuine small to moderate impact on the wellbeing of the actor in cross-sectional, longitudinal, experience sampling, diary and experimental studies of kindness behaviour (Curry et al. 2018, Hui et al. 2020). As is often the case with psychological studies, problems with research methodology limit what we can meaningfully say about kindness in terms of helpful detail and thus masks our understanding of when, how and for whom kindness-based interventions might be the most useful.
What does seem to be emerging is that kindness activities (Curry et al. 2018, Hui et al. 2020);
- Are related to positive psychological functioning for the actor more strongly than effects on mental ill health or physical health markers.
- Have a greater impact on eudaimonic than hedonic wellbeing.
- Show stronger impacts when helping is informal (or mixed) rather than formal. This, however, could be an artefact of sustainable happiness factors, whereby regular volunteers adapt to their ongoing helping behaviour and no longer experience some or all of the benefits (see below). Perhaps this begs the question, what can charities and voluntary organisations do to counteract this effect?
- May vary in their impacts depending on demographic factors such as; 1. Age: Younger people report more psychological impact and older people more physical health effects. This could be due to certain types of well-being being valued or noticed more at different ages. 2. Gender: Being female was associated with increased benefits, which could relate to values around gender stereotypes. Some studies show different results on these factors.
- May have differential effects depending on intention. Helping others rather than engaging in kindness activities to promote one’s own wellbeing was associated with greater influences on outcomes in some studies. Social and cultural factors are likely to influence this. More work needs to be done to understand these effects (Shin et al. 2020).
- May lead to differential effects for the actor depending on context including who the recipient of the kindness is.
- Are not well understood in terms of their long-term effects.
- Have a reciprocal interaction effect with wellbeing. Kindness leads to greater wellbeing, which increases the tendency to be kind. When the impact of (successful) kindness on the recipient of the kind act is also considered, this constitutes a potentially powerful upward spiral effect.
How might kindness promote wellbeing?
How might being kind lead to improved wellbeing effects? Possible suggestions are:
- Kindness can lead to a boost of positive emotions which, in line with the Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson 2004), promotes widened attention, increased openness, improved creativity, problem-solving, psychological perspective and flexibility. These in turn build downstream resilience resources.
- Kindness increases a sense of connection and relatedness and promotes social bonds and integration. Strengthening social bonds increases our access to resources to support our wellbeing in an ongoing way.
- Kindness may influence how others see us in a positive way. It is considered one of the most desirable qualities in a partner. This feeds into relationship building.
- Mediated by the above kindness signals increased safety and reduced threat resulting in a positive impact on physiological markers of stress.
- Kindness promotes a sense of meaning, purpose and authenticity in life which are independently associated with wellbeing. This could operate even if a kindness act backfires as long as the actor feels connected to their values despite the outcome.
- Kindness promotes a sense of perceived competence in oneself and improved confidence and self-evaluation. Our kind actions may also enhance a sense of agency and environmental mastery.
- Kindness helps widen our perspective and focuses us on others rather than ourselves thus decreasing the potential impact of our own issues.
- Kindness promotes upward spirals as described, resulting in positive ripples across groups and communities. A small action can have a big impact at a wider level.
The bigger picture
The pay it forward or ripple effect of kindness is perhaps the most important factor which can impact wellbeing not just at an individual but a societal level. This is why the news from the world happiness report gives me hope and brings me back to the question of evolution.
I would argue that there is a potentially more important, higher level of abstraction to the evolutionary considerations discussed above; radical connectedness. My understanding of this is “I can’t truly be well if the other people, species and ecosystems of the planet that I am inextricably linked to, are not also OK”. Unless we are able to get our head around this idea, I fear humans may become an example of extinction due to a lack of adaptability and our tendency to destroy our own habitat in the service of individualistic advancement. We have learnt to cooperate to live in groups and to dominate the earth as a species, perhaps we now need to learn to expand our concept of kindness and cooperation to another level? Small acts of kindness can potentially have far-reaching effects. How can you be kind today? If you need some inspiration search Youtube or check out https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/
Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). 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
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden–and–build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical transactions of the royal society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367-1377.
Hui, B. P. H., Ng, J. C. K., Berzaghi, E., Cunningham-Amos, L. A., & Kogan, A. (2020). Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 146(12), 1084–1116. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000298
Shin ,L.J, Layous ,K., Choi ,I.,Na, S. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2020) Good for self or good for others? The well-being benefits of kindness in two cultures depend on how the kindness is framed, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15,6, 795-805, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1651894
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