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How does showing kindness to those around us affect our well-being? Can friendly gestures toward others make us feel better about ourselves as well? These questions are answered by researchers led by Olga Bialobrzeska in an article recently published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
There are many sayings about the benefits of kindness, and it would be way too easy to quote any of them to start this article. According to folk beliefs, kindness is an investment for the future, a key that opens all doors or proof of a person’s worth.

The widespread knowledge expressed in parables and sayings is also reflected in research. Indeed, empirical results show that politeness, defined as a series of low-cost, everyday, ordinary actions for the benefit of others, is the glue for social relationships. This is especially true for the ties we define as weak – relationships with a person serving us coffee, ta clerk at our neighborhood store, or the neighbor we meet on the way home.

It should not be surprising that life is better in groups where people are friendly to each other. The question remains, however, whether daily displays of kindness can benefit us, and is it the case that the nicer we are to others, the better we feel about ourselves? Polish researchers led by Olga Bialobrzeska set out to solve this riddle in an article recently published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Prosociality and well-being
The authors of the paper entitled” “Keep nice and carry on: Effect of Niceness on Well-Being,” refer to empirical results showing that actions for the benefit of others – i.e., prosocial behaviors – are often associated with mood improvement, increased self-esteem, and higher life satisfaction. The reason is that helping others makes us feel part of a larger community, which allows us to satisfy our basic need to belong. Actions on behalf of others also enable us to put universal values, such as kindness or altruism, into practice. Interestingly, however, while research on the impact of prosocial activities on psychological well-being is abundant, no one has looked at whether simple behaviors of everyday kindness can also translate into improved functioning. The authors of the study set decided to test it.

The authors conducted three studies to test their hypothesis that being kind to others is associated with mental well-being. It is worth noting that each study was conducted according to the principles of open science: hypotheses and analyses were pre-registered, and any deviations from the pre-registration were meticulously reported.

In the first correlational study, the researchers asked participants to rate how often they showed daily kindness to others. Since the study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors also asked about acts of kindness directly related to the ongoing pandemic. In addition, the researchers measured the participants’ life satisfaction, their subjective level of happiness, and the frequency of depressive symptoms. The results of the study confirmed the assumptions of the authors. Those who declared that they were more likely to show kindness to others – both in relation to the pandemic and in general – were happier, more satisfied with their lives, and experienced fewer symptoms of depression. Because the first study was correlational, the authors could not infer causality from the observed effect. Indeed, as they noted in the paper, it may be that people who are generally more satisfied with their lives are more likely to show kindness to others. For this reason, the researchers conducted two more experimental studies.

Let’s be kind and do our own thing
In the first experiment, participants were subjected to a brief intervention. Those randomly assigned to the experimental condition were asked to perform five small acts of kindness, such as smiling at a stranger passing by, complimenting a loved one, or greeting a neighbor. Participants in the control condition were also asked to perform five daily acts unrelated to kindness, such as making the bed or stretching after a long time spent in front of the computer. Next, all respondents were asked about their satisfaction with life and overall mood. The results showed that people who were intentionally kind to others declared better mood and greater satisfaction with life.

The second experimental study looked at the participants’ past behavior. Once again, the researchers randomly assigned male and female participants to two conditions: an experimental condition, in which the participants were asked to recall and describe a situation in which they had shown kindness to another person, and a control condition, in which they were asked to describe an ordinary situation involving another person. Participants were again asked to rate their satisfaction with life, themselves and their relationships, and to report their mood. In addition, as the third study also took place during the pandemic, participants were asked to write a short message thanking the front-line doctors, physicians, nurses nurse practitioners. Importantly, remuneration was not dependent on whether or not they agreed to write such a message, as the authors wanted to test whether respondents who recalled acts of kindness would later be more likely to engage in such acts selflessly.

The results were again in line with the authors’ assumptions. Once again, it was found that people in the kindness condition declared greater satisfaction with life and were in a better mood. Interestingly, participants recalling their small acts of kindness were indeed more likely to agree to write a short thank you message, which suggests that kindness may work on the principle of a self-perpetuating wheel – the more often we show it, the more inclined we are to keep showing it.

Thus, the research results described above clearly indicate that it pays to be kind. The more often we are kind to others, the better off we are with ourselves.

More information:
Bialobrzeska, O., Baba, J., Bedynska, S., Cichocka, A., Cislak, A., Formanowicz, M., … & Kozakiewicz, K. (2023). Keep nice and carry on: effect of niceness on well-being. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 45(5), 138-156.

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