Image: by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash
Is kindness good for the kind person?
For those of you who wonder why such a serious clinical academic as myself (hahaha!) should spend time studying such an ethereal topic as “kindness” (even if my artistic collaboration with Marta is not a study by any stretch of imagination), it is probably important to highlight that the effects of altruism and kindness on mental health – the mental health of the giver, not of the receiver – have been the subject of large and methodologically-sound studies for decades.
And the results of these studies have been amazingly consistent: helping others leads to increased well-being, no matter if this altruistic behaviour is expressed through volunteering, charitable donations, or acts of kindness to individuals that we do or do not know personally.
For example, a study in 2015 asked to more than 70 volunteers to engage in “prosocial behaviours” (i.e., acts of kindness) when interacting with strangers or acquaintances, doing things such as holding open a door, helping with schoolwork and asking someone if they need help.
They found that the days with more prosocial behaviours were associated with higher levels of “positive affect” (i.e., happiness) and better overall mental health.
But, you may wonder, it is easy to be kind at normal times, when we don’t have to worry about our own survival.
What if we are struggling – like most of us are now, at the times of coronavirus, isolated by the lockdown and worried about own health, and the health of those we love?
Well, it turns out that kindness is really beneficial to kind people especially if they are struggling.
In another large study on more that 2,200 people, those who were struggling with a range of problems — studying, saving money, controlling their tempers, losing weight or finding employment — were more motivated to address their problem after being offered the opportunity to help (by giving advice) others struggling with the same issue.
Yes, those who gave advice improved in their motivation, and experienced a boost in confidence. This was a randomized, controlled, double-blind study, the highest standard of evidence in science.
In yet another, even more telling (and touching) study, individuals who were providing full-time home-care to a spouse, because of illness or disability, were asked to record how much time they were spending helping, and also what were their emotions during the same time period, at random moments during the day (so called “ecological momentary assessment”, or EMA, method). These people were struggling caregivers to spouses who had severe, chronic illnesses, such as dementia, cancer or stroke.
The amazing finding: the time spent helping predicted greater levels of positive affect in the caregivers, especially among those caregivers who perceived themselves as “interdependent” with the (care-recipient) spouse. Interdependency was defined as “feeling that they shared a common fate”… but I would call it “being in love with each other”.
Many more studies on kindness and mental health are summarised in this year Mental Health Awareness Week webpage dedicate to this topic.