“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested…. Here is the exercise: find one wholly unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow and just do it. Notice what happens to your mood.” (Martin Seligman)
The holiday season can be stressful. It’s a time when another year is hurtling toward its close—often reminding us of unmet goals and the swift passage of time. It’s also a time when expectations and obligations collide with excess, and unless we’ve learned to set reasonable boundaries, stress is often the result.
Multiple recent studies show that one great way to counter stress is to spread some kindness. Research by Elizabeth Raposa, Holly Laws, and Emily Ansell, from the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University’s School of Medicine, showed that when people extend small acts of kindness, such as holding a door, offering assistance, or waving a car into a line of traffic, they experience less stress than on days when they don’t perform these small kindnesses.
The aim isn’t to be the kindest person in the room, it’s to be the kindest version of yourself. According to Ansell: “It’s not just whether you’re more altruistic than the next person, it’s that being more altruistic than usual can change your experience from day to day. It’s all about doing more than your average.”
The study showed that when participants recorded fewer instances of extending kindness or assistance to others, they experienced greater stress and negative emotions. When they extended more kindnesses, they reported lower than average feelings of stress and corresponding negative emotions.
This means that no matter what our kindness baseline may be, a small increase in our efforts can make for a happier and less stress-filled day.
The Yale research has been corroborated by Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. His studies suggest that one reason acts of kindness reduce stress may be that they take our mind off our own troubles: “When you are thinking about helping other people, you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems.”
There’s also plenty of evidence that engaging in acts of kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins in our bodies, all of which are known to elevate mood and induce calming.
Neuroscientist James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, agrees: “That is the reward for caring,” he says. “It is wired within us that when we care and nurture, it affects our physiology in a very positive way.”
The only way to know for sure if kindness will reduce your stress levels is to try it. So, as you head to the mall to search for the perfect gift for that person who really doesn’t need anything, or as you attend one too many obligatory holiday events, or as you find yourself worrying about credit card bills or excess calories, look for the next opportunity to extend a kindness. You might just make someone’s day—and that someone might be you.
“Ask yourself: Have you been kind today? Make kindness your modus operandi and change your world.” (Annie Lennox)