At a time when COVID is changing our daily lives in ways we never imagined, it’s important to remember that kindness also is contagious. And it’s a powerful force for making the individuals who practice it happier and healthier, and the world a better place for all of us.
In recent years, scientists have begun to quantify all the ways kindness impacts people and, by extension, their communities. A study by the Max Planck Institute found that children as young as 14 months old spontaneously helped an adult by handing over an item that was out of reach, indicating that kindness and cooperation are innate.
Another study took our understanding of kindness a step further, determining that cooperative behavior is contagious—spreading from person to person within a social network. Researchers found that positive characteristics such as love and kindness help maintain human networks. In turn, the networks are necessary for those characteristics to continue to spread. And it only takes a handful of people to make that happen.
It seems that kindness has a domino effect, with one person’s kind action inspiring others to follow suit. And this applies not only to the action, but also to the spirit of generosity that motivates it. For example, people who observed others making charitable donations gauged their own donations to that standard of generosity.
The impact of observing and engaging in thoughtful acts is so profound that it actually lights up the “kindness center” of the human brain, producing positive feelings. Interestingly, people experience a flood of positive feelings whether they are hoping to get something in return for their generosity or are acting without consideration of a payback. Selfless acts, however, also trigger the brain to provide a sense of a reward.
Multiple acts of kindness, in this case referring to those performed for seven days—are correlated to increased happiness. It didn’t matter whether the recipients of those kindnesses were close friends or strangers. And people who sent a belated thank-you letter to someone who had never been properly thanked for an earlier kindness experienced a huge, month-long boost to their own happiness.
There are other good reasons to develop a kindness habit. The feel-good hormone oxytocin—produced when we are kind and generous—helps reduce inflammation and free radicals, and promotes the release of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels. This can help protect cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure. It also can slow the aging process and can may help you live longer. Those who help others on a regular basis have a lower risk of dying within five years than those who don’t make that effort. Other research indicates that consistently kind people experience less depression, stress and anxiety—making kindness a good antidote for COVID-wracked nerves.
In a world that sometimes feels out of control, engaging in acts of kindness also can provide a deep sense of satisfaction and connection. These acts don’t need to be dramatic, costly or time-consuming. Simply leaving a note on a neighbor’s door, sending a card to let a friend or family member know you are thinking of them, redirecting a conversation from gossip to gratitude, or painting rocks to brighten a stranger’s day, can reverberate in ways you can’t imagine.
The grass-roots Kindness Rocks Project, which began on Cape Cod in 2015, has become an international effort to spread encouraging thoughts and uplifting motifs on painted rocks. In Naperville, the rocks can be found in the gardens of many of the city’s 137 parks. Residents of Monarch Landing also participated in the project, creating more than 100 colorful painted rocks for the Healing Garden at the Northwestern Proton Center in Warrenville.
From humble painted rocks to thoughtful notes to big-dollar donations, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted,” as Aesop observed. It was true in ancient Greece, and it is just as true today.