The Butterfly Effect of Kindness

Mean people really suck, don't they? No, really...  we all know what it feels like to be ignored, mistreated or disrespected either intentionally or not.  In a polarized dog-eat-dog world that seems pretty mean these days, a little kindness goes a long way...and it makes your brain work better!

An interesting theory called the "butterfly effect" describes how a butterfly in your backyard can lead to a cyclone in another part of the world. It is a mathematical construct that explains small events with large seemingly unrelated consequences. So it is with kindness. A small act of kindness can set off a chain of events that we many not even be aware of. 

Studies show how receiving an act of kindness incentivizes us to generate kind acts for others.  Researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard provide the first scientific evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. One person’s generosity will spread to three people. Those three people will each pay forward the kind act to three others, benefiting nine in all. Those nine will continue to multiply the kindness. 

From an evolutionary perspective our brains are wired to operate better when we demonstrate social support to others than negative or even neutral attitudes toward others. A recent study used fMRI brain imaging to explore the benefits of showing kindness to others and found 3 specific neurobiological benefits:

  1. Reduced stress response
  2. Increased activity in reward and pleasure center
  3. Increased activity in the septal area (feelings of social connectedness)

For this study, participants were asked about various scenarios in which they either gave or received social support. For example, having "someone to lean on" or "looking for ways to cheer people up" when they were feeling down. As you might expect, both giving and receiving social support correlated to lower reported negative psychosocial outcomes. However, when the researchers conducted a series of fMRI neuroimaging tests to explore the neural mechanisms of how specific brain areas were affected by giving versus receiving social support, they found that giving social support ultimately had greater brain benefits than receiving.

Another study conducted at Oxford and published on analyzed the impact of kindness in four different categories:

Familiars: Acts of kindness were carried out on family and close friends

Strangers: Acts of kindness were carried out on strangers

Self/Novel: Acts of kindness were carried out on oneself, and involved doing something atypical

Observers: Acts of kindness were not carried out personally, but participants were required to observe other people carrying out acts of kindness

Participants were asked to perform small acts of kindness for seven days - anything from buying someone a cup of coffee to dropping a card in the mail or simply spending time. Then they compared their happiness, life satisfaction, compassion, trust, positivity, and human connection levels before and after.

They found that the kindness intervention had a positive effect on every single category tested.

They also found that the increase in happiness was dependent on the number of acts completed — that is, the more acts of kindness, the happier they were.

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kindness and well-being

Kindness in the Workplace

In a more recent 2017 study, researchers extended this body of work and conducted a functional analysis of how kindness reinforces kind behavior in the workplace.  Employees were randomly assigned to be Givers, Receivers, and Controls. Givers practiced 5 acts of kindness for a personalized list of Receivers over 4 weeks. They  found that Givers and Receivers show increased feelings of well-being in both the short-term (e.g., on weekly measures of competence and autonomy) and the long-term (e.g., Receivers became happier after 2 months, and Givers became less depressed and more satisfied with their lives and jobs). Maybe more importantly, Givers’ prosocial acts inspired others to act. Receivers paid their acts of kindness forward with 278% more prosocial behaviors than the control group.

Kindness enhances mood, overall well-being, and outlook on life - and it's contagious! Simply stated, when you help others, you change your own brain and the brains of those around you.

H.O.P.E. Challenge

Maybe it’s time for a little less meanness and a little more kindness.  My challenge to you is to put the HOPE strategy to work. 




Every day

Kindness looks different to everyone and it doesn’t have to be expensive or grandiose to be meaningful. Give it a try for one week.  Every day starting today, look for one person to help through kindness or support. Then come back here and share your experience in the comments!

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