Phrases like "random acts of kindness" and "pay it forward" have become popular terms in modern society. There are even special days dedicated to performing good deeds and organisations who specialise in altruism.
But why has kindness become so popular? Perhaps it's best explained by those who have identified a deficit in their lives that can only be filled by giving.
Science proves there are good reasons why so many of us can't get enough of those addictive, feel-good emotions. Research shows there are many physical, emotional, and mental health benefits associated with kindness. It's a powerful and free resource to reduce anti-social and bullying behaviour.
Evidence suggests an increase in bullying (and cyberbullying) may be due to a lack of empathy, learned behaviour or emotional deficits at home. In other words children's behaviour can be a reflection of their environment.
"As a citizen, grandparent, father, and professional, it is clear to me that the mission of schools must include teaching kindness. Without it, communities, families, schools, and classrooms become places of incivility where lasting learning is unlikely to take place . . . [W]e need to be prepared to teach kindness because it can be delayed due to maltreatment early in life. It can be smothered under the weight of poverty, and it can be derailed by victimization later in life . . . Kindness can be taught, and it is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society."
- Maurice J. Elias, Professor of Psychology
Many impressive benefits are reported to support teaching kindness in schools to reduce anti-social behaviour:
1. Happy, caring children
The good feelings that we experience when being kind are produced by endorphins. They activate areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. These feelings of joyfulness are proven to be contagious, encouraging more kind behaviour (also known as altruism) by the giver and recipient.
"On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain's natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, so we get a natural high, often referred to as 'Helper's High'."
- David Hamilton, Ph.D.
Acts of kindness also help us form connections with others, reported to be a strong factor in increasing happiness.
2. Enhanced feelings of gratitude
When children are part of activities that help others less fortunate than themselves, it provides them with a real sense of perspective, highlighting their own good fortune. Being generous helps them appreciate what they have, makes them feel useful, and fosters empathy towards others.
3. Greater self-esteem
Studies show that people experience a "helper's high" when they do a good deed. This rush of endorphins creates a lasting sense of pride, well-being, and an enriched sense of belonging. Even small acts of kindness are reported to heighten happiness, increase energy, and give a wonderful feeling of optimism and self-worth.
4. Increased peer acceptance
Research on pro-social behaviour among adolescents determined that being kind increases popularity and fostered meaningful connections with other people. Being well liked is an important factor in the happiness of children and it was demonstrated that greater peer acceptance was achieved through good deeds. Better-than-average mental health is reported in classrooms that practice more inclusive behaviour due to an even distribution of popularity.
5. Greater sense of belonging
Everybody has a fundamental need to belong and feel connected to the people around them. Being part of a community ensures support is on hand during difficult times and helps to increase a child's perception of their worth and the value of their life.
Lack of support and the absence of warm, enriching relationships can have a devastating impact on a child's emotional, physical and mental well-being.
Being kind creates warm feelings of connection and trust enabling children to cultivate positive relationships which helps them flourish in many aspects of life. Moreover, it's not easy staying angry at someone who tries to make you feel good. That's why kindness can help to break down barriers and mend broken hearts. Teachers who actively promote a culture of kindness reward their students with improved friendships and feelings of belonging.
6. Better concentration and improved results
Kindness increases serotonin, enhancing positivity and helping children feel good about themselves. This important chemical affects learning, memory, mood, sleep, health, and digestion. Children with a positive outlook have greater attention spans, are more willing to learn, and are better creative thinkers with better results at school.
"Catching the "happy" bug from those around you (and maybe even those "virtually" around you) is a contagion that everyone should try to catch. Just being around positive people can be energizing, motivating, and inspiring and is likely to help you work more effectively."
- Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.
7. Improved health and less stress
Many physical and mental health benefits can be achieved by being kind. Altruistic actions trigger a release of oxytocin. This important hormone can significantly increase happiness and reduce levels of stress. Oxytocin also protects the heart by lowering blood pressure and reducing free radicals and inflammation (a factor for aging).
8. Reduced depression
Depression is a condition that can be exacerbated by a reduction in serotonin. As kindness stimulates its production it appears that good deeds can act as a natural antidepressant. What's more, it's reported that acts of kindness provide positive feelings and strengthen immune function for not only the giver and receiver but also in anyone who witnesses them.
9. Reduced bullying
Many traditional anti-bullying programs focus on the negative actions that cause anxiety for children. When asked, students felt they "were boring, repetitive, negatively worded" and that students would "zone out and not listen".
A more proactive approach where teachers integrate pro-social activities that build emotional intelligence helps change thoughts and actions to foster the positive behavior that's naturally rewarded with friendship. Promoting its psychological opposite is key in reducing bullying and creating warm and inclusive school environments.
Former researchers of Penn State Harrisburg Shanetia Clark and Barbara Marinak studied how to combat bullying. They advocate that adolescent bullying and violence can be confronted with in-school programs that integrate "kindness -- the antithesis of victimization". They encourage teachers to read picture books about kindness and act upon the attributes of kindness.
“Teachers can help by critically discussing and unpacking the moral and civic values in these important stories. Victims, perpetrators, and spectators in complex school systems can speak more openly through a veil of anonymity.”
- Shanetia Clark and Barbara Marinak
The foundation of their solution is reading, discussing and acting upon the attributes of kindness, which “enables us to be our best selves”.
10. Enhanced teacher well-being
As highlighted above, the benefits of kindness to ensure optimum student well-being are extensive. It's also proven that kindness and good feelings are contagious so it stands to reason that teachers with happy, helpful, kind and considerate students are going to enjoy a higher level of happiness, less stress and greater well-being.
"Simply put, when you hang out with happy people, you tend to feel happier, have more energy, and feel less stressed."
- Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D
It's quite clear that modern education must prioritise the inclusion of positive psychology through in-school programs that don't just teach about kindness but encourage students to actively do good.
"The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it."
- Patty O'Grady, Ph.D.
When used consistently, kindness is a powerful tool for nurturing the well-being of everyone in a school. It's a significant and important step towards tackling anti-social behaviour but our research indicates it's far more effective when used in combination with social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness.
Kindness Days to Celebrate
Random Acts of Kindness Day - 17 February
Pay It Forward Day - 28 April
World Kindness Day - 13 November
* This post is an update of our article on Edutopia.
AUTHOR: Lisa Currie - Ripple Kindness Project
Lisa is the founder of Ripple Kindness Project, a community and outreach program, and primary/elementary school curriculum. Passionate about improving well-being and reducing bullying, RIpple developed a whole school, evidence-based SEL, kindness and mindfulness curriculum to build character and emotional intelligence to nurture positive, happy and safe school communities.