The science of kindness

Posted on October 15, 2019

Peer pressure can be a good thing! Influencing people in a positive way can have a ripple effect of joy, happiness and kindness across a wide section of society. The University of Pretoria (UP) has decided to initiate a Random Acts of Kindness Day for staff and students, and we hope that this will become a UP tradition. Random Acts of Kindness Day will be a recurring campaign, and you can share your experience of what you felt by being a recipient of kindness on #UPUbuntuChooseday, because everyone can choose to be kind on a Tuesday.

According to Prof Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic, “It is University Social Responsibility Month, so this was an ideal time to launch the Random Acts of Kindness campaign. Kindness, caring, generosity and social bonding or solidarity are part of how we live THE UP WAY.”

There are numerous benefits to being kind and practising random acts of kindness. Scientific studies indicate that the benefits of kindness affect both the giver and the receiver. A series of studies in neuroscience at Stanford University, headed by Prof Jamil Zaki, have found that kindness is actually ‘contagious’ and that if you see an act of kindness or generosity, you are likely to spread it. One good deed will in turn inspire another.

How does this work exactly?

Kindness has been found to increase positive biochemical responses in humans. This means that when one is kind or has witnessed an act of kindness, several biological processes happen.

It is argued that kindness increases oxytocin production. Oxytocin is said to be responsible for, among other things, increasing feelings of happiness. Increased oxytocin may also boost feelings of trust, according to a University of Zurich study, which in turn helps to reduce anxiety, boosts self-esteem and creates a sense of happiness and optimism.

A study at the University of British Columbia found that highly anxious individuals relaxed more and showed an increase in positive moods and a decrease in social anxiety and social avoidance if they performed just six acts of kindness a week.

The ‘helper’s high’ is a biochemical phenomenon where your brain’s pleasure centre lights up as a reward for being kind. This causes a dopamine rush, so as a giver, you feel as good as a receiver for doing something unexpectedly nice for another person. Dopamine is a hormone that is strongly associated with feelings of happiness. This is what makes being kind so addictive. The more kind you are to others, the more your brain rewards you with a dopamine rush. In fact, an Emory University study found that the human mind gets highly excited by surprises and unexpected good turns. This is why, according to a University of California, Berkeley study, the ‘helper’s high’ is said to produce enough endorphins to have the same mental effect as a mild morphine high.

Kindness (like most anti-depressants) may boost your levels of serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for a positive mood, overall mood regulation and general well-being. It has benefits for memory, learning and brain function.

The combination of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin is responsible for our happiness, and practising random acts of kindness is a simple hack to boost their levels and in turn, our overall happiness.

Acts of kindness reduce stress and enhance health. Dr Stephen Post from Case Western Reserve University found that altruistic behaviour improves everything from life satisfaction to physical health.

According to Prof Tharina Guse, Head of the Department of Psychology, “In particular, kindness can enhance positive emotions, not only for the persons who do kind acts, but also for the receivers of these acts. Further, it strengthens our social relationships. Interestingly, a study from the University of Utrecht showed that students who engaged in acts of kindness experienced higher levels of academic engagement. In other words, they felt energised by their studies and showed dedication and persistence.”

A Harvard Business School study involving 136 countries found that societies which were the most charitable and financially generous had the happiest people. Kindness need not be expensive; it can be as simple as a smile, a kind word, a good demeanour or giving someone the right of way on a road. It is also beneficial to take time to reflect on your acts of kindness – for example, asking yourself: What kind act did you do, and what were the outcomes for yourself and others?

Dr Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, notes that “Kinder people actually live longer, healthier lives… People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Giving help to others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying – and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status, and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church; it means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking!”

Be kind, it’s scientifically good for you!

Just imagine the impact of the ripple effect of nearly 60 000 students and staff at UP doing at least one act of kindness a day? We can change the world, THE UP WAY.

- Author Shakira Hoosain
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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