“Acts of Random Kindness,” explains actor Morgan Freeman as God in the film “Evan Almighty” to Steve Carell’s character as a very hesitant neo-Noah, while drawing the word “ARK” in the dirt. That’s the moment when Evan understands the feeling of giving something of himself for others – and how it is transformative.
You see signs all the time, “practice random acts of kindness.” Most of us do it every now and then, and some of us do it more than others. When you do – reflect about how that makes you feel when you are doing it and for the moment thereafter. It is a healer – for both the recipient and for you, the doer.
There are truly countless ways of helping others for the briefest of moments – letting someone in front of you at the supermarket line who only has 2 items when you have 12. Holding the door open for someone behind you, complimenting how efficient a server has been, along with – and beyond -- the tip. It is indeed the little things that ARK is about – and it involves direct human-to-human interaction.
And is there research about how kindness affects health? Yes, there is.
According to an article in Psychology Today focusing on how ARK improves well-being, there are numerous physiological as well as emotional benefits. Showing compassion and spontaneous selfless assistance reduces stress, boosts immune function and reduces negative feelings and anxiety.
Additionally, write the authors, engaging in such releases positivity: “We feel better and the recipients of our acts feel better, which then makes them more likely to be kind to other people.”
Throughout the past couple of decades, teams of scientists have sought to pinpoint how performing ARK impact the human body and experience.
The tale of Dr. Seuss’ infamous Grinch whose heart grew several sizes that memorable Christmas day when he discovered kindness has been verified by research of more than 640 people who were of a “disagreeable” nature. These mildly depressed individuals participated in a study that asked them to complete three online compassion intervention exercises, including a control condition. The researchers found that after two months, those who performed acts of kindness in their close relationships showed the highest reductions in depressive symptoms and the highest increases in life satisfaction.
In those who are not disagreeable or depressed, performing ARK can also have happiness-boosting effects. One team of researchers wanted to verify the adages that doing good makes one feel good and promotes happiness. They performed a systematic review of more than 21 published studies investigating the relationship between performing acts of kindness and happiness. Overall, they found that spontaneous selfless benevolence creates a small but significant improvement in subjective well-being.
Study lead author Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, concluded, “This research suggests that people do indeed derive satisfaction from helping others. This is probably because we genuinely care about others' welfare, and because random acts of kindness are a good way of making new friends, and kick-starting supportive social relationships.'
ARK has also been shown to calm people with social anxieties, helping them feel more comfortable mingling with others; social anxiety is not just “shyness” but rather it is an intense fear and nervousness that occurs when in social situations. Based on the fact that performing acts of kindness that benefit others is known to increase one’s sense of happiness and may lead to positive interactions, one study investigated if those with social anxiety would experience more easy engagement when performing ARK. The four-week study of 115 participants with social anxiety were divided into three groups. One group performed acts of kindness. The second group was only exposed to social interactions and was not asked to perform benevolent acts, while the third group participated in no specific intervention and simply recorded what happened each day.
According to the study authors, there was a greater overall reduction in patients' desire to avoid social situations among the group who performed good deeds, and this effect was most profound in the early phase of the study.
Study co-author Jennifer Trew states, "Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person's social environment. It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations."
Feeling good via an empathetic or kind action activates the reward region, according to authors of one study which found that ARK creates that “warm glow.” The researchers analyzed 36 existing studies including 1150 participants whose brains were tested with fMRI scans over 10 years to discern what occurs when making decisions to act in a benevolent manner. This team was the first to split the analysis between what happens in the brain when people act out of genuine altruism -- where there's nothing in it for them -- and when they act with with the motivation that there is something to be gained as a consequence.
In this study, the scientists found that reward areas of the brain are more active when people act kind in anticipation of reciprocity. However, the team also discovered that the reward areas in the brain were also activated in those who acted out of altruism – and further, brain regions such as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex were more active during altruistic generosity. This led the researchers to conclude that “it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind."
Engaging in ARK is contagious – in a good way, according to researchers. This is the concept of “pay it forward,” creating a forward moving current of goodwill, uniting individuals who are strangers.
One study is deemed the first laboratory evidence that cooperative, kind behavior is indeed contagious. The researchers engaged participants who were strangers to one another and who gave money in a public goods game were more likely to give their own money away to others in future games. This, the authors said, “creates a domino effect in which one person's generosity spreads first to three people and then to the nine people that those three people interact with in the future, and then to still other individuals in subsequent waves of the experiment.”
This may explain to an extent why charities are experiencing both higher volunteerism and donations; annual giving levels increased by 187% since 1954.
There has also been research as to what motivates people to engage in ARK with strangers, and why some are more generous than others. In one study, researchers found a link between generosity and the neurochemical oxytocin (a feel good brain chemical). The team gave doses of either oxytocin or placebo to study participants, who were then offered a one-time decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger who could accept or reject the split. According to the scientists, those given oxytocin offered 80% more money than those given a placebo.
One way of increasing your overall well-being is simply by doing something benevolent for others. Once this becomes habitual, you will feel compounded benefits and quite possibly even increased motivation to take better care of yourself as well as a stronger sense of self-worth.
This is summarized in a quote by Mother Teresa, who stated, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.”