by Lynda Wallace
Think of the kindest person you know. Now think of the happiest.
Is it the same person? Chances are pretty good that it is, because very few things make us as happy as being kind. And of course being happier usually makes us kinder in turn. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that we all want to be a part of. And research suggests that being kind in sustained—and sometimes inconvenient—ways may make us happiest of all.
For example, in a study on the effect of committed volunteering, a group of people with multiple sclerosis volunteered and trained to provide peer support to others who also had MS. Over the course of three months, the volunteers made supportive weekly phone calls to the people they were assigned to support. The individuals on both sides of these support calls clearly benefited from them, with both the volunteers and the clients reporting feeling happier than they had before the program began.
So it was good for everyone. But the volunteers benefited even more than the clients did. The volunteers reported a lasting reduction in depression and a greater sense of self-worth, mastery, and self-control. Making a significant and sustained effort to help others had a powerfully positive effect on their lives.
But, of course, making this type of structured commitment isn’t the only way to get a happiness boost from being kind. Studies have shown improvements in well-being from many different ways of practicing kindness. In one study, participants reported feeling significantly happier after conducting five small acts of kindness in a week, especially if they conducted all five of them in a single day.
There’s just no doubt about it—being kind makes us happy. Here are a few of the reasons—and some thoughts on how to best appreciate the happiness that kindness brings.
Kindness Improves Our Relationships
When positive psychology pioneer Chris Peterson was asked to sum up the field’s research findings, his response was “other people matter.” Nothing has more of an effect on most people’s happiness than the quality of our relationships, both the close relationships with our family and friends and the “looser ties” we share with neighbors and colleagues. Kindness strengthens both of these types of relationships. It is at the heart of close, trusting relationships. And being kind to people outside our closest circles makes us feel more connected to our communities and the people in them.
Kindness Strengthens Our Self-Image
Being kind to others makes us feel good about ourselves—kinder, of course, but also more confident, useful, and in control. (“Here’s something I can do to make the world a better place.”) And that good feeling can be reinforced by a double dose of gratitude—from the people we’re helping, and for our own good fortune.
Kindness Creates Meaning
Practicing kindness, especially when we take on a specific, sustained commitment to helping others, enhances our sense of meaning and purpose, which is a key element of a happy life. In fact, a sense of meaning has been shown to enhance virtually every aspect of our well-being—increasing happiness, health, and resilience while reducing anxiety and depression.
Kindness Takes Our Minds Off Ourselves
One of the most common stumbling blocks to happiness is what psychologists call rumination, or overthinking—brooding over the causes of our problems and the potential outcomes of our worries. It’s a habit that negatively affects not only our moods, but also our motivation, concentration and confidence. And one of the surest ways to break the cycle of overthinking is to actively turn our attention away from ourselves by going out of our way to do something kind for someone else.
Kindness Makes It a Better World—And One We Feel Better About
It’s simply true that what we put into the world affects what we get back from it. Kindness to others generates kindness in return. In fact, people who are in the habit of practicing kindness consistently rate other people as kinder, their communities as more supportive, and the world as a better place to live, than people who take fewer kind actions toward others.
So how can we make the most of the happiness that kindness brings? Well, to quote something my mother said often while raising seven kids: “If you’re going to be nice, be nice all the way.” Practicing kindness with an open heart, appreciating that the gifts we receive are at least as great as the gifts we give, and willingly accepting offers of kindness from others, all will help us to create greater happiness in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Find out about upcoming WBI programs with Lynda Wallace.
Lynda Wallace is the Program Director and Lead Instructor of WBI’s Positive Psychology Coach Certification program. One of the country’s most highly sought-after coaches and teachers, and the author of the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, Lynda holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a Certificate in Positive Psychology from Wholebeing Institute. Before becoming a certified Positive Psychology Coach, Lynda spent 20 years as an executive with Johnson & Johnson, where she ran a billion-dollar global business including some of the world’s most iconic brands. Galvanized by the compelling findings of positive psychology, she left the business world to begin a new career doing work she genuinely loves, helping others to create positive change in their lives.