The big idea: does true kindness have to be selfless? – The Guardian
“I really enjoy doing it: it makes me feel good about myself. It gives me a boost, mentally and physically.” If these were your reactions to an activity, you’d surely be inclined to do it as often as you could. After all, aren’t a lot of us looking for ways to find more meaning in life and to be happier and healthier? What, then, is the act that elicits such positive responses? The answer: being kind.
A growing body of evidence from the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that performing kind acts increases mental wellbeing, enhances physical health and might even improve life expectancy. Kindness is not just beneficial for the recipient, but also for the giver.
In 2021 I worked with a team at the University of Sussex to create the Kindness Test. This online study was launched on BBC Radio 4, and more than 60,000 people took part. We found that the more acts of kindness people told us they carried out, the greater their wellbeing.
At Christmas, if someone really loves the gift you’ve chosen for them, the pleasure of giving can be even stronger than the pleasure of receiving a present. But such feelings don’t always sit comfortably with us. Shouldn’t true kindness be selfless? Traditionally, it is tied up with notions of self-sacrifice and putting other people’s welfare ahead of your own. Indeed, some of those researching kindness argue that a defining element is that the person performing the act must give up something in order to help someone else – and not gain personally. This may physically be the case. If I give up my seat to an older person on a crowded tube, she ends up sitting and I end up standing. I’ve lost out by my kindness. Similarly, if you give up several hours a week to volunteer at your local food bank, you are sacrificing time in order to help others. You are not directly benefiting from your kindness.
Yet when I surrender my seat, or you volunteer your time, we tend to feel a warm glow of self-satisfaction, a glow that shows up in brain scans, a glow that is distinct from the pleasure that registers when we win something for ourselves. We can also benefit through reciprocity. We can act kindly now, even if it’s at some cost to us, in the knowledge that at some point in the future someone will act in …….