Why Kindness is Contagious

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  • Category: Experts, Mental Health
  • Read Time: 6 Minutes

Why Kindness is Contagious

Think about the last time someone did something for you “just because.” How did that make you feel? If you are anything like me, it likely boosted your mood and made you want to pass along the favor. This type of kindness can be contagious; we are more likely to do kind things for others when others have also done kind things for us (there are movies and sayings about this). This seems to be driven by a natural human desire for reciprocity, or the desire to give back to those who have already given to you (Fehr & Schmidt, 2006). 

Prosocial Behaviors

Prosocial behaviors are any behaviors that help other people or even whole communities. They can be a form of altruism when the intentions behind the behavior are simply to benefit other people and not for any personal gain, though are many times motivated by a desire for reciprocity and connection. Humans have a tendency to seek out social connections when they are stressed as a means of coping and that prosocial behaviors tend to increase during times of acute stress (Von Dawans et al., 2012). Additionally, when an individual engages in prosocial behaviors, they experience a reduction in their overall stress levels on that day (Raposa et al., 2015). Therefore, we know that prosocial behaviors are a natural and effective means of reducing our stress levels in the short-term.

Acts of Kindness and Well-being

Prosocial behaviors, like acts of kindness, significantly increase the sense of well-being of both the person providing the help and for the recipient (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). In addition to the desire for reciprocity, altruistic and prosocial behaviors provide us with a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, called existential well-being. Engaging in altruistic acts, in general, has been shown to increase our existential well-being. However, altruism directed at folks outside your inner circle (family, friends, and close communities) has greater benefits for existential well-being (Xi et al., 2013). Any acts of kindness and generosity that you show toward others may have larger impacts if spread far-and-wide rather than solely within your closest relationships.

Ripple Effect: Prosocial Contagion

When it comes to acts of kindness, we tend to see a ripple effect. It seems that every so often, for example, a trend emerges in which people pay for the order of the people behind them in a drive-through line. This often prompts the next person to pay for the next person, and so-on. We see what is called prosocial contagion when it comes to these acts of kindness.

When we are the recipient or even witness of prosocial behaviors, we experience an emotion that has been coined elevation; this is the uplifting feeling we get when we see others’ behaviors that are morally positive. People who experience this elevation are more likely to then pass on those prosocial behaviors to others (Sparks et al., 2019). This then ripples out throughout communities as more and more people are exposed to the prosocial behavior in question.

Today’s Task

So, today, I encourage you to engage in a small act of kindness for someone else. Be that driving force that makes the world a slightly better place, even if for one person in one moment. This could be material/financial if you have the means and want to spread kindness that way. You could buy someone a meal or coffee, give your friend that bracelet they have always admired, or stop and buy lemonade from the neighbor kid down the street. 

However, if means are tight or you prefer to spread kindness in other ways, monetary and material resources are not the only way. You could reply to a post pumping up someone/something you enjoy on social media, write a letter to a friend telling them all your favorite things about them, or write a thank-you note to someone who has positively impacted your life. 

Regardless of what/how you choose to spread kindness today, the goal here is to be friendly, generous, and/or considerate toward others around you. This kindness helps others to cope with their own stress and the altruistic component helps reduce your own stress and improve well-being (Li et al., 2008). Chances are good this will have a ripple effect, making the world a slightly better place. 

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

References

Fehr, E., & Schmidt, K. M. (2006). The economics of fairness, reciprocity and altruism–experimental evidence and new theories. Handbook of the economics of giving, altruism and reciprocity, 1, 615-691.

Li, N. P., Halterman, R. A., Cason, M. J., Knight, G. P., & Maner, J. K. (2008). The stress-affiliation paradigm revisited: Do people prefer the kindness of strangers or their attractiveness? Personality and Individual Differences, 44(2), 382-391. 

Raposa, E. B., Laws, H. B., & Ansell, E. B. (2016). Prosocial behavior mitigates the negative effects of stress in everyday life. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(4), 691-698.

Sparks, A. M., Fessler, D. M., & Holbrook, C. (2019). Elevation, an emotion for prosocial contagion, is experienced more strongly by those with greater expectations of the cooperativeness of others. PloS one, 14(12), e0226071.

Von Dawans, B., Fischbacher, U., Kirschbaum, C., Fehr, E., & Heinrichs, M. (2012). The social dimension of stress reactivity: acute stress increases prosocial behavior in humans. Psychological science, 23(6), 651-660.

Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). When helping helps: autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(2), 222-244.

Xi, J., Lee, M., LeSuer, W., Barr, P., Newton, K., & Poloma, M. (2017). Altruism and existential well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 12(1), 67-88.