Why helping is good for you.
The science behind the ideology.
So, you’re walking down the street and you see someone struggling with some heavy bags. You run over and help them to carry the bags to their car. This makes them smile and feel happy. As they’re driving home they see a mum with her kids trying to get across the road, they stop and let them cross. The mum smiles, the driver smiles back. When she gets home, the mums feeling happy so instead of just sitting in front of the TV she decided to call her friend for a long over due catch up. The talk for ages about life and how tired they both are. The ripple effect! One act of kindness is not just one act of kindness, these acts of kindness can just keep on rolling and rolling.
And science supports doing it, too: research indicates that regularly being kind to others, with or without premeditation, is a good plan for general happiness levels and specific social issues. But why do these benefits occur, and what do they do to us that makes them such positives?
Why we commit altruistic acts is kind of a psychological puzzle. Technically, we should all be out for ourselves; but being kind to others could have two evolutionary benefits for us, even if on the surface, it looks like all cost to us and all benefit to somebody else. Acts of kindness towards people we know help cement social bonds and raise the possibility that they’ll help us in our time of need, while acts of kindness towards strangers help our personal levels of satisfaction and happiness and our concepts of ourselves as moral beings. But while they may ultimately be a bit selfish in the abstract, a random act of kindness can be a decided boon for the human species.
The big thing to know about committing random acts of kindness regularly is that they’re good for our psychological well being. While the amount of happiness they seem to provoke has occasionally been exaggerated by studies, an overview of the science from the University of Oxford in 2016 found pretty concrete proof that a happiness benefit does exist. The scientists looked at 21 different studies on happiness and acts of kindness, and found that results indicated a “small to medium” happiness boost after committing them. Similarly, a 2015 study found that being “prosocial” in your behavior (including acting kindly towards others) was a boon to mental health, lowering stress levels overall. And scientists in 2016 found that being kind to others was actually more helpful to psychological “flourishing” than being kind to yourself; effective self-care, in other words, should probably include some acts of kindness towards others.
Empathy is a key part of human psychological make-up, and it seems that altruistic behavior, like kindness towards strangers with no obvious benefit to ourselves, is a product of that empathetic quality. Researchers in 2016 staged a situation in public that required the help of passers-by, and then rated the empathetic traits of those who stopped to help and those who didn’t. The people who did stop showed more empathetic traits in general, though this may have to do with their self-conception rather than objective measurements.
When it comes to the neurological level, though, things start to get really interesting. “Extraordinary altruists” — people who are phenomenally kind or generous — show unique neurological patterns, according to a 2014 study of people who donated kidneys to compete strangers. They discovered that extraordinary altruists tend to have more volume in their right amygdala, and more responsiveness to detecting emotion in facial expressions — which is, as it happens, the direct opposite of what happens in the brains of psychopaths. Empathy is associated with the right amygdala in general, and increasing and decreasing its size seems to have direct impacts on our generosity towards others.
If you start doing random acts of kindness, it’s highly likely that you won’t want to stop. The reason is a psychological feedback loop observed by researchers, one that’s peculiar to happiness and altruism: happy people are inclined to be more altruistic, and altruism makes them happier. A 2006 study of Japanese students, for instance, found that the happier they were, the more likely they were to perform kind acts, and that thinking about those acts afterwards gave them joy.