Does Kindness Create Happiness?
Investigating the evidence that being kind can make people happier
Here at kindness.org, we believe that kindness positively shapes our world. Our credo is that it’s good to be kind to others, making both the giver and the receiver of kindness happier. We therefore want to make it simple to choose kindness and create a kinder world.
Do we know if we’re right?
One of our goals at kindness.org is to ensure our beliefs are grounded in reality. In order to unleash the potential positive effects of kindness, we needed answers about the impact of kindness and the motivations that inspire people to be kind.
Does kindness create happiness? How much happiness? Can we prove it?
Is kindness a natural human behavior? Or is it learned?
For our first step we commissioned Oxford University to review the existing scientific literature on kindness.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll report on our findings with a series of posts written in collaboration with our academic researchers. We’ll share what we’ve learned so far and show how we can use that information to create a kinder and happier world — together.
Want the full study, the nitty gritty data and our references? Check out our Literature Review here.
You can read the Oxford University news report here
Part One: Investigating a benefit in kind
(with Dr. Lee Rowland)
We don’t have to look too far to find stories of kindness on social media and the news. Many of us enjoy sharing stories of people helping each other, the kindness of strangers, and people who treat animals with compassion. These anecdotes have great appeal. If helping others helps ourselves too, then encouraging people to be kind could provide an accessible, inexpensive and effective means of boosting happiness, wellbeing and mental health.
This has obvious appeal — but is it too good to be true? From a scientific perspective, it’s crucial to examine the empirical evidence to see what’s really going on.
And so for our first research project, we looked at the studies where the biggest claims were being made: that being kind makes you happier.
Measuring the cause and effect of kindness
When we first looked at previous research with the Oxford scientists, it appeared to show two very interesting results:
- That people who spend more money on others are happier.
- That people who choose to help others are healthier and happier.
However, much of the existing research around kindness is correlational. A correlation means that two separate factors appear to be related in some way: for example, when one thing is high (amount of sunshine), the other thing is high too (ice cream sold). The correlational evidence that we examined is consistent with the prediction that people will be happy to help others, and will get a boost to their own mood when they do so.
Nevertheless, this evidence is not sufficient to establish a causal relationship between kindness and happiness. The correlational data doesn’t tell us if being kind is responsible for making you happier. It only tells us that being kind and being happy generally occur together.
Maybe happiness itself is what makes people helpful. Or maybe a third variable like health, income or personality — makes people both happy AND helpful. Or maybe the relationship between the two is completely spurious.
Untangling cause and correlation has important practical implications. For example, if happiness causes people to help others (rather than the act of helping causing happiness), it might be a waste of time and resources to encourage unhappy people to do volunteer work.
A better understanding of the relationship between kindness and happiness, will give kindness.org the opportunity to create the most effective kindness initiatives.
What we studied
In order to establish whether performing acts of kindness can cause happiness, we examined experimental research. This is research where you deliberately vary one thing, to see what effect it has on the other thing.
Using academic databases, we identified 376 English-language articles covering scientific studies of the effects of kindness on happiness and wellbeing. We then screened these articles, removing those that were inadequate or inappropriate to our focus. Following screening we were left with 21 studies to analyze.
The 21 studies we chose had randomly assigned people to do kind acts (e.g. spending money on others, or giving to charity) or neutral acts (e.g. spending money on oneself) and measured and compared happiness before and after the acts.
Our key question was: Does being kind boost the happiness of the person doing the act of kindness (or “kind actor”)?
(In a later post we will explore the question of whether kindness also boosts the happiness of the receiver.)
Using these 21 studies, we conducted a meta-analysis: a statistical technique that combines the results of multiple studies in order to arrive at a more robust conclusion. In terms of experimental evidence, a meta-analysis is as good as it gets.
What we found
The results of the meta-analysis showed a clear effect of kindness: being kind genuinely does boost your happiness.
For the team at kindness.org, this is an inspiring result that we were delighted to hear.
The Oxford researchers also told us that the average increase in happiness when you’re kind to someone else is equivalent to just shy of a 0.8 jump on a 10-point scale. So, that’s nearly one whole point. In scientific terms, this is referred to as a small-to-medium effect.
That might sound lower than you’d expect, but the research team explained that this effect is similar to other types of interventions designed to boost mood. They also reminded us that this is just the increase in happiness observed on average. In some instances, and for some people, the effect on happiness is greater.
The Nuances of Kindness
Naturally, we wanted to know more about where these larger gains in happiness are made. The research team reviewed the science to see where the biggest gains in kindness-based happiness might arise. In doing so, they identified several limitations in the original kindness experiments:
1: Almost all of the studies were designed to investigate the effects of kindness in general.
In the prosocial spending studies, participants received money and were then instructed to spend that money on ‘someone else’, but in nearly all instances, that ‘someone’ was not specified and the type of spending was not specified. In the helping studies, participants were again not instructed on a particular act to a particular person. Their acts could be “anything to anyone”.
Does buying a present for a stranger give people a greater boost than taking a friend to lunch?
Does helping a neighbor with groceries lift your spirits more than babysitting so your brother and his wife can have a night out?
Unfortunately, these studies couldn’t tell us what types of kind acts performed for what types of people might bring the largest gains in happiness.
2: The majority of kind actors in these studies were ‘typical’ people. So we weren’t able to determine whether certain kinds of people (e.g. socially isolated, empathic, or extrovert) are more likely to become happier through kindness.
3: There was considerable variation in whether the kindness intervention involved a cost to the kind actor.
Most ‘acts of kindness’ involved a cost such as time, effort or resources. However, many had just a minor cost or barely any cost at all. In the prosocial spending experiments, participants were given money and sometimes ‘goody bags’ — to give away. Participants were usually paid as well, so their cost for being a kind actor may in reality have been a net gain.
These variations meant we were unable to determine whether ‘larger’, more costly, or more difficult acts of kindness yield more (or less) happiness.
Moving beyond belief: What’s next?
Our finding that kindness has a small-to-medium effect on happiness is encouraging. Perhaps most importantly, the evidence shows that kindness makes a positive difference to the world. The effect of kindness is comparable with other positive psychology interventions that help to boost wellbeing, such as expressing gratitude, focusing on character strengths, or practicing mindfulness.
With our current state of knowledge, we don’t know how to maximize the benefits of kindness. As the saying goes: more research is needed. Kindness.org is committed to expanding our research output and thoroughly exploring the role that kindness does — and could — play in shaping people’s lives for the better. We’re curious about just how life-enhancing kindness can be for individuals, communities, and society as a whole.
Be sure to read our next post, where we’ll look at the psychology and biology behind kindness and explore the question: What causes people to be kind?