WASHINGTON — These days, feel-good news stories about communities coming together or good Samaritans helping a stranger are certainly welcome amid all the doom and gloom. It turns out those acts of kindness not only make those receiving help feel better, they actually improve the giver’s health too. Researchers say good-hearted behavior, particularly random acts of kindness, benefits mental and physical health.
“Prosocial behavior — altruism, cooperation, trust and compassion — are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society,” lead author Bryant P.H. Hui says in a media release. “It is part of the shared culture of humankind.”
Plenty of evidence of altruism’s impact on health
The report in the journal Psychological Bulletin reviews 201 independent studies on prosocial behavior and its affect on well-being. After examining data on over 198,000 participants, Hui’s study reveals there is a modest link between good deeds and good health.
Although the effect is relatively minor, Hui contends that the number of people worldwide performing acts of kindness makes this an important discovery.
“More than a quarter of Americans volunteer, for example,” the University of Hong Kong assistant professor explains. “A modest effect size can still have a significant impact at a societal level when many people are participating in the behavior.”
Random kind acts of kindness produce the best results
Hui and his team find a sudden charitable act carries a stronger link to overall well-being. The report says that someone stopping to help their elderly neighbor carry groceries home tends to boost well-being factors more than a scheduled event, like volunteering at a charity for the day. Researchers say a spontaneous good deed is less likely to become “stale.”
Study authors believe a random act of kindness also leads to people forming more social connections because they are more casual and informal interactions. When it comes to happiness, researchers also find a strong connection between kindness and eudaimonic well-being — the ability to find meaning in your life.
The study says realizing one’s potential actually has more of a connection to kindness than hedonic well-being, or general happiness and positive feelings.
Kindness affects you differently as you age
According to Hui, these studies show that prosocial behavior provides different benefits depending on your age. For younger participants, researchers reveal kind acts produce higher levels of overall well-being, eudaimonic well-being, and boosts psychological function.
For older, kind-hearted individuals, their physical health is more likely to improve by performing good deeds. Women also seem to benefit more from prosocial behavior, which Hui’s team suggests is due to societal stereotypes which expect females to be more caring and giving.
The report, released by the American Psychological Association, finds measuring the effects of kindness isn’t an exact science. While some studies which were specifically looking at their impact on well-being found a connection, more generalized studies found less evidence or no link at all.
Hui’s team says future research needs to factor in information like the giver’s ethnicity and social class. They also want to see if people can become too generous and reach a point where too much giving negatively affects health.