You’ve seen this line on t-shirts, coffee mugs and internet memes, but behind this quote is a strong recent body of psychological research supporting the importance of kindness for mental health. What does it mean to “be kind” and how does kindness impact our wellbeing?
Kindness has many definitions and is often used interchangeably with related terms such as compassion and altruism. One definition is that kindness is acts or gestures associated with genuine, warm, and compassionate feelings This suggests two important components of kindness:
1. actual acts of kindness and
2. a kind or compassionate emotional stance.
One important manifestation of kindness is doing nice things for other people. While it is intuitive that when other people do kind things for us it would improve our mental health – we feel grateful and appreciative, in addition to benefiting from the kindness directly – it may be less intuitive that being kind to other people similarly has positive effects on our own mental health.
"Acts of kindness" (random or intentional) for others in need has been shown to predict greater happiness, subjective sense of wellbeing, and life satisfaction. One reason is because being kind to others has a direct positive impact on our mood. Acts of kindness to others has been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of affiliation with others along with greater self-esteem and subjective happiness. Being kind makes us feel happier and more capable, contributing to our own wellbeing.
Another reason that being kind to others helps our own mental health is that such acts, not surprisingly, strengthen our interpersonal relationships. The “tend and befriend” response is our tendency to support others in times of stress or hardship. Reaching out to others in need strengthens our social networks, making us more likely to have those networks to rely on when we’re in need.
Finally, acts of kindness serve as a kind of buffer against the unavoidable stresses of life. Although it may seem that when we’re overworked, busy, and stressed we have even less time or energy to help others, research shows that doing acts of kindness for others actually lowers our own stress levels. In times of stress, doing prosocial acts for other people reduced the effects of stress on negative affect and mental health.
It turns out that who you are kind to matters as well. While early research on the positive effects of kindness on mental wellbeing focused on our being kind to others, recent research has also highlighted the importance of self-kindness. According to Kristin Neff, self-kindness is an important component of a broader construct of self-compassion. It includes being “warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate”. Self-kindness may include important behaviors such as self-care as well as the emotional stance of grace, compassion, and acceptance of ourselves as human beings. Like kindness toward others, self-kindness is also associated with improved emotional and physical health, less anxiety and depression, and greater resiliency in the face of stress.
Ways you can practice kindness to others and yourself this month:
In a world where you can be anything, be kind.
This piece was inspired by Joon's collaboration with Feeling Swell. To learn more about Feeling Swell and their mission to make kindness the constant, visit feelingswell.org and explore their collection with Joon Care.
Towards a Measure of Kindness (Canter et al., 2017)
UK Mental Health Foundation Kindness Research Briefing 2020 (Lee et al., 2021)
Social Capital and Prosocial Behavior as Sources of Well-Being (Helliwell et al., 2017)
Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life (Raposa et al., 2015)
Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff
Self-Compassion Buffers Adverse Mental Health Impacts (Lau et al., 2020; Neff, 2004)