Can kindness improve our well-being?

In recent years, a great deal of research has been devoted to something known as "prosociality:" our ability to care about others and help them, without expecting anything in return. Some of these studies have highlighted a positive relationship between prosocial behavior and the well-being of people who are particularly altruistic and kind. Using a meta-analysis, this study examines the strength of this correlation. Can caring about others and showing kindness towards them really do us good?

Generally, research on prosocial behaviors has suggested that people who engage in these behaviors are likely to have better mental and even physical health than those who spend less time helping others. Still, the evidence isn’t overwhelming. This is why Bryant PH Hui and his colleagues gathered 201 studies to conduct a meta-analysis involving a total of 198,213 participants.

What were the main conclusions of this work?

First, while the association between prosociality and well-being exists, the link is relatively modest, but significant. Second, random acts of kindness (helping a neighbor with their groceries, for example) seem to be more strongly associated with well-being than more formalized prosocial behavior (such as volunteering in an association). The authors hypothesize that informal and more occasional help could lead to the formation of social ties. These acts also tend to be more varied and less likely to become routine.

In addition, the authors of the study, published by The American Psychological Association, highlighted a greater effect of prosociality on eudaimonic well-being (which focuses on self-realization and the search for meaning) than on hedonic well-being (which focuses on positive feelings and pleasure). This effect also appears to vary with age. Altruistic young people tend to report higher levels of general well-being (including eudaimonic), while older participants tend to report better physical health.

Finally, the link between prosociality and well-being (especially eudaimonic) tends to be more pronounced in women than in men.

After presenting and discussing the different results of their meta-analysis, the authors suggested directions for future research, suggesting that other factors should be examined, such as the effect of ethnic group or social class. To conclude, in the words of the study's lead author Bryant PH Hui: “Prosocial behavior -- altruism, cooperation, trust and compassion -- are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society […] It is part of the shared culture of humankind, and our analysis shows that it also contributes to mental and physical health.”
Source: Bryant PH Hui, Jacky CK Ng, Erica Berzaghi, Lauren A. Cunningham-Amos, Aleksandr Kogan. “Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being”, in Psychological Bulletin, August 2020.

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