Kindness Counts: How engaging in acts of kindness can improve one’s subjective well-being

 

By: Keegan On

Happiness has always been an unstable element in my life. I was raised in a typical suburban, two-parent household. As I grew into a teenager, I went through the expected rebellious phase. I began to lash out at my parents for being too strict and overprotective, which lead me move out when I was eighteen. I rented a basement apartment with money I earned from working a minimum wage job. Although I finally had the freedom I desired, I had no contact with my family, no free time, and no direction in life. During this period, I was not happy.

I ended up reconciling with my parents, getting a job, going to university, and getting married. This phase of my life was another happy upswing. In recent years, however, I have been generally unhappy. I am not depressed, but I am just not satisfied with my life. This dissatisfaction protrudes through my reluctance to meet new people and my cynicism about the world. What is the point of being a happy person in a place that is filled with unhappiness? As I began to realize my discontent, I decided to explore the subject of happiness in hopes of gaining control of the emotional pendulum that swings throughout my life. For the purpose of this study, subjective well-being is defined as one’s sense of happiness, life satisfaction, and personal fulfillment. Acts of kindness is defined as partaking in deeds that are generous, thoughtful, and helpful to others. Counting kindness is defined as reflecting on and recording acts of kindness in which one partakes (Otake et al, 2006).

The act of improving one’s subjective well-being (SWB) can have positive emotional effects. While attempting to be happy can appear trivial or too abstract at times, there are numerous health benefits associated with improved SWB. For example, Brantley et al. (2013) found that self-generated positive emotions can help to build physical health. These researchers showed that people who engage in positive meditations have healthier hearts (p. 1123). Moreover, Dew and Wilcox (2013) argue that kindness and generosity towards one’s spouse has a significant effect on the quality of the relationship. Practicing kindness towards others positively affects the person who is being kind as well as those around him or her.

Bardi and Buchanan (2010) found that performing kind acts towards others can improve one’s SWB. In their study, participants were randomly assigned to perform either a) no kind acts, b) kind acts, or c) new forms of kind acts, each day for ten days. The study found that participants who performed kind acts showed increases in life satisfaction, while participants who performed new forms of kind acts showed vast increases in life satisfaction. The study showed that people tend to become happier when engaging in a variety of kind acts.

Otake et al. (2006) conducted a study that demonstrates how performing kind acts can increase happiness. Within this study, Otake et al. also explored how “counting” and/or reflecting on one’s kind acts influences one’s emotional well-being. In this particular study, participants engaged in acts of kindness for a week. Some participants were required to count their kind acts, while the remaining participants did not. Overall, this study found that those who actively counted their good deeds were significantly happier than participants who did not engage in the counting process. While performing kind acts increases one’s SWB, reflecting on and recording those acts can accelerate the improvement of SWB.

Drawing from the preceding research, I have become particularly interested in how I can improve my own SWB. Therefore, within the context of this research I hope to conduct a similar experiment on myself as a way of contributing to existing literature in this field. The following question will guide my research process:

How does being kind affect one’s subjective well-being?

Specifically, I am interested in how practicing and recording intentional acts of kindness can affect one’s SWB.

Methodology

I began this study by administering the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire on myself. This test consists of twenty-nine statements that can each be answered with a uniform six point Likert scale (Argyle & Hills, 2002, p. 1073-1074). This tool gave me an indication of what my SWB was like prior to this study.

In order to explore how acts of kindness can affect one’s SWB, I set out to perform acts of kindness in my everyday life. This study was conducted over a five-week period. I created a number of rules that were to govern these kind acts:

  1. Attempt to do one meaningful act of kindness per day.
  2. Do not repeat an act of kindness within a week.
  3. Do not count something you normally do as an act of kindness.

I then set up a blog that would allow me to record, review and reflect on my acts of kindness (http://kindkeegan.tumblr.com/).

Results

Over the course of 5 weeks I engaged in 21 acts of kindness, averaging 0.6 acts of kindness a day. I have organized my findings into a table to demonstrate the range of acts that were performed. Prior to performing these acts of kindness, my score on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire was 3.24. After the five weeks of kindness, my score increased to 4.83 out of a possible 6.

Type of Kind Act Number of Times Done Example
Kindness in Athletics 3 Staying positive in volleyball.
Kindness to Acquaintances 5 Bringing snacks to class.
Kindness to Strangers 7 Driving a stranger home.
Kindness to Friends 4 Helping drive to NYC.
Kindness to Spouse 2 Doing extra chores.

Analysis

Over the course of this experiment, my SWB score on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire increased 33%. Although I was shocked at how drastically my SWB was improved in such a short amount of time, this finding is consistent with the research of Otake et al. (2006), as they found that people who counted kind acts for only a week showed signs of an improved SWB (p. 278).

My blog posts helped me to keep track of the acts of kindness that I was doing. As I reviewed my blog, I found two recurring themes: 1) the ease of kindness and 2) how kindness connects.

The Ease of Kindness

As I began to engage in this experiment, what surprised me the most was how easy it was to perform a simple act of kindness. For example, my very first act of kindness was to drive two of my friends home from our weekly dodgeball game. We had been playing together for years, yet I had never once offered to take them home. The drive did not take nearly as long as I thought it would, and the fifteen-minute period seemed to fly by as we discussed the game, our favorite movies, and our plans for the coming weekend. We joked around and enjoyed each other’s company, and afterward I did not feel like I had wasted time because I was just talking with my friends. While during this experiment I engaged in meaningful acts of kindness, most of them took minimal time and effort to perform.

How Kindness Connects

I found that a benefit of doing acts of kindness was that it brought me closer to people. While walking in public I felt more connected to the people around me. Rather than focusing only on myself, I made an effort to be conscious of others’ needs. One act of kindness that stemmed from this attuned consciousness occurred at a local McDonalds late one evening. There was a man in front of me who had just ordered his food, but could not find his wallet. I stepped forward and offered to pay for his meal and realized that he was a friend of mine from high school. He was so grateful that he invited me to his apartment for a party. This act of kindness turned a lonely evening of eating junk food and watching Back to the Future II (again) into a wild adventure with new people and old friends.

Keeping It Kind

My study suggests that SWB is mainly influenced by internal factors, such as decisions or actions that one makes. Despite this, I wonder how my SWB would be influenced if we lived in a world where acts of kindness were not a novelty? How would I feel if I witnessed kind acts performed by others on a daily basis? How can I inspire others to perform kind acts just like I have?

During the past five weeks I feel that I have truly improved the quality of my life and the lives of those around me. Now, I challenge any reader to perform and record one act of kindness every day for one week. Seven days, seven acts, and seven reflections are all anyone needs to feel happier. Instead of starting a blog, one could keep a journal, email themselves, or post on their existing social media profile (Facebook has a setting that allows one to post status updates that only they can see, for example). The key is to be kind and to reflect on these acts on a regular basis. I am convinced that if we work together, we can make the world a better place.

References

Algoe, S.; Brantley, M.; Catalino, L.; Coffey, K.; Cohn, M.; Fredrickson, B.; Kok, B.; Vacharkulksemsuk, T. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science24(7), 1123-1132.

Argyle, M. & Hills, P. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: A Compact Scale for the Measurement of Psychological Well-Being. Personality and Individual Differences33(7), 1073-1082.

Bardi, A. & Buchanan, K. (2010). Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology150(3), 235-237.

Dew, J. & Wilcox, W.B. (2013). Generosity and the Maintenance of Marital Quality. Journal of Marriage and Family75(5), 1218-1228.

Fredrickson, B.; Otake, K.; Otsui, K.; Shimia, S.; Tanaka-Matsumi, J. (2006). Happy People Become Happier through Kindness: A Counting Kindnesses Intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies7(3), 361-375.

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