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Abstract

At the top of parents' many wishes is for their children to be happy, to be good, and to be well-liked. Our findings suggest that these goals may not only be compatible but also reciprocal. In a longitudinal experiment conducted in 19 classrooms in Vancouver, 9- to 11-year olds were instructed to perform three acts of kindness (versus visit three places) per week over the course of 4 weeks. Students in both conditions improved in well-being, but students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance (or sociometric popularity) than students who visited places. Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied. Teachers and interventionists can build on this study by introducing intentional prosocial activities into classrooms and recommending that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully.
Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in
Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being
Kristin Layous
1
*, S. Katherine Nelson
1
, Eva Oberle
2
, Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl
2
, Sonja Lyubomirsky
1
1Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, California, United States of America, 2Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology and Special
Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Abstract
At the top of parents’ many wishes is for their children to be happy, to be good, and to be well-liked. Our findings suggest
that these goals may not only be compatible but also reciprocal. In a longitudinal experiment conducted in 19 classrooms in
Vancouver, 9- to 11-year olds were instructed to perform three acts of kindness (versus visit three places) per week over the
course of 4 weeks. Students in both conditions improved in well-being, but students who performed kind acts experienced
significantly bigger increases in peer acceptance (or sociometric popularity) than students who visited places. Increasing
peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced
likelihood of being bullied. Teachers and interventionists can build on this study by introducing intentional prosocial
activities into classrooms and recommending that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully.
Citation: Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S (2012) Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer
Acceptance and Well-Being. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51380. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051380
Editor: Frank Krueger, George Mason University/Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, United States of America
Received August 12, 2012; Accepted November 6, 2012; Published December 26, 2012
Copyright: ß2012 Layous et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: These authors have no support or funding to report.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: klayo001@ucr.edu
Introduction
At the top of parents’ many wishes is for their children to be
happy, to be good, and to have positive relationships with others
[1–2]. Fortunately, research suggests that goals for happiness,
prosociality, and popularity may not only be compatible but also
reciprocal. Happy people are more likely to engage in prosocial
behavior [3–4] and have satisfying friendships [5]. Similarly,
students who are well-liked by peers (i.e., sociometrically popular)
are also helpful, cooperative, and emotionally well-adjusted [6–8].
Past studies indicate that the link between happiness and
prosociality is bidirectional–not only do happy people have the
personal resources to do good for others, but prompting people to
engage in prosocial behavior also increases well-being [9–12].
Based on this prior research–which is predominantly cross-
sectional–we predicted that prompting preadolescents to engage
in prosocial behavior will boost not only their happiness but also
their popularity.
To our knowledge, this study is the first longitudinal experi-
mental intervention of prosocial behavior in preadolescents
(‘‘tweens’’), and the first to link a manipulation of a simple helping
behavior to increases in sociometric popularity (as assessed by peer
reports). To explore whether doing good for others (versus
engaging in a simple pleasant activity) over 4 weeks would
simultaneously increase happiness and promote positive relation-
ships with peers, we randomly assigned 9- to 11-year-olds either to
perform acts of kindness (‘‘kindness’’) each week or to keep track of
places they visited that week (‘‘whereabouts’’).
Although the efficacy of happiness-increasing strategies is better
established in adults [13], some interventions have boosted well-
being in children and adolescents by encouraging gratitude [14–
15]. Prompting youth to engage in kind acts, however, may have
benefits beyond personal happiness, as prosocial behavior predicts
academic achievement and social acceptance in adolescents [16].
The dearth of work on enhancing happiness and prosociality in
youth, coupled with evidence of their many benefits, highlights the
desirability of extending research to this age group.
We predicted that committing kind acts (e.g., carrying groceries)
and tracking whereabouts (e.g., visiting grandma’s house or the
mall) would both be rewarding activities that would increase well-
being in preadolescents. Indeed, the whereabouts task was
designed to be a mildly pleasant and distracting control activity
(for similar mood-boosting benefits of such activities, see [17–18]).
For ethical and pragmatic reasons, we wanted to avoid potential
harm or waste by not administering the types of ‘‘neutral’’
activities previously used as control tasks (e.g., listing daily hassles
or writing essays), which preadolescents may find boring, pointless,
or even unpleasant. We also wanted to include a mildly positive
comparison group to rule out the possibility that doing kindness
increases popularity merely because it feels good. Accordingly, we
expected students who practice kind acts–an activity that promotes
positive relationships–to experience increases in peer acceptance
in addition to increases in well-being. Distinct from other animals,
humans as young as 18 months eagerly engage in altruistic acts
[19], suggesting that prosociality has a unique evolutionary
advantage for human social behavior. Indeed, prosocial behavior
has a strong positive association with later peer acceptance [16],
and this relationship is likely bidirectional, as children who feel
accepted are more likely to do things for others [20], and, in turn,
children who do things for others might gain the acceptance of
their peers. This latter path has not been studied experimentally.
Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to
a variety of important academic [21] and social [22] outcomes,
including reduced likelihood of being bullied [23].
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 1 December 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 12 | e51380
Method
Consent forms describing the study were sent home with
students and signed by their guardians. If students brought back
a signed consent form, they were then given their own consent
form to sign during the researchers’ first classroom visit. The
student consent form was verbally explained to the students by the
researchers and then students provided written consent. Consent
from guardians and students were recorded on a class roster. Only
if both guardian and student gave consent was the student given
baseline measures. The consent procedure and all data collection
were approved by the University of British Columbia’s Behavioral
Research Ethics Board (H11-00271) and the Vancouver School
Board Ethics Committee.
Nineteen classrooms in the Vancouver, BC school district were
randomly assigned to one of two conditions in the second half of
the school year. Every week over the course of 4 weeks, students
(N = 415, M
age
= 10.6), nested within classrooms, were instructed
either to perform 3 acts of kindness (for anyone they wish) or visit 3
places (anywhere they wish). Throughout the 4-week intervention,
students in both conditions reported what they did each week on
in-class surveys. Examples of kind acts included ‘‘gave my mom
a hug when she was stressed by her job,’’ ‘‘gave someone some of
my lunch,’’ and ‘‘vacuumed the floor.’’ Examples of locations
visited included ‘‘shopping centre,’’ ‘‘baseball diamond,’’ and
‘‘grandma’s house.’’ All students were told the study was about
children’s experiences and emotions.
Before and after the intervention, students reported their life
satisfaction (Satisfaction With Life Scale adapted for children;
[24]), happiness (Subjective Happiness Scale adapted for children;
[25]), and positive affect (child version of the Positive and Negative
Affect Schedule; [26]). In addition to the self-report measures,
students were provided with a roster of their classmates and asked
to circle students (fellow participants) who they ‘‘would like to be in
school activities [i.e., spend time] with’’ (a measure of peer
acceptance). Students were instructed that they could circle as
many or as few names as they liked. At posttest, students were
presented with a blank list of their classmates, so they made their
new nominations from scratch. Because the study was conducted
during the latter half of the school year, students in each classroom
already knew each other and were relatively unlikely to continue
to make new friends spontaneously. Pre-post changes in self-
reports and peer nominations were analyzed using multilevel
modeling to account for students’ nesting within classrooms. No
baseline condition differences were found on any outcome
variables. Further details about method and results are available
from the first author.
Results
Consistent with previous research, overall, students in both the
kindness and whereabouts groups showed significant increases in
positive affect (c
00
= 0.15, S.E. = 0.04, t
(17)
= 3.66, p,.001) and
marginally significant increases in life satisfaction (c
00
= 0.09,
S.E. = 0.05, t
(17)
= 1.73, p = .08) and happiness (c
00
= 0.11,
S.E. = 0.08, t
(17)
= 1.50, p = .13). No significant differences were
detected between the kindness and whereabouts groups on any of
these variables (all ps..18). Results of t-tests mirrored these
analyses, with both groups independently demonstrating increases
in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction (all ts.1.67, all
ps,.10).
All students increased in the raw number of peer nominations
they received from classmates (c
00
= 0.68, S.E. = 0.27, t
(17)
= 2.37,
p = .02), but those who performed kind acts (M = +1.57;
SD = 1.90) increased significantly more than those who visited
places (M = +0.71; SD = 2.17), c
01
= 0.83, S.E. = 0.39, t
(17)
= 2.10,
p = .05, gaining an average of 1.5 friends. The model excluded
a nonsignificant term controlling for classroom size (p= .12), which
did not affect the significance of the kindness term. The effects of
changes in life satisfaction, happiness, and positive affect on peer
acceptance were tested in subsequent models and all found to be
nonsignificant (all ps..54). When controlling for changes in well-
being, the effect of the kindness condition on peer acceptance
remained significant. Hence, changes in well-being did not predict
changes in peer acceptance, and the effect of performing acts of
kindness on peer acceptance was over and above the effect of
changes in well-being.
Discussion
Our study demonstrates that doing good for others benefits the
givers, earning them not only improved well-being but also
popularity. Considering the importance of happiness [27–28] and
peer acceptance in youth [21–22], it is noteworthy that we
succeeded in increasing both among preadolescents through
a simple prosocial activity. Similar to being happy [29], being
well-liked by classmates has ramifications not only for the
individual, but also for the community at large. For example,
well-liked preadolescents exhibit more inclusive behaviors and less
externalizing behaviors (i.e., less bullying) as teens [20]. Thus,
encouraging prosocial activities may have ripple effects beyond
increasing the happiness and popularity of the doers (cf. [30]).
Furthermore, classrooms with an even distribution of popularity
(i.e., no favorite children and no marginalized children) show
better average mental health than stratified classrooms [8],
suggesting that entire classrooms practicing prosocial behavior
may reap benefits, as the liking of all classmates soars. Teachers
and interventionists can build on our work by introducing
intentional prosocial activities into classrooms and recommending
that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully.
Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: KL SKN EO KAS SL.
Performed the experiments: KL EO. Analyzed the data: KL SKN.
Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: KL SKN EO KAS SL.
Wrote the paper: KL SKN EO KAS SL.
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... Two recent meta-analyses found that prosocial activities produce a small positive effect on "emotional well-being"-a catch-all term that includes happiness, eudaimonic well-being, positive affect, psychological flourishing, and the absence of negative emotions [17,21]. Prosocial effects have been observed among children as well as adults and in samples across the world [17,[22][23][24][25][26][27]. Aknin et al. [22] speculate the "warm glow" of giving might be a universal component of human psychology. ...
... Third, future work should seek to replicate our results in a variety of populations. Past work has found emotionally beneficial effects of prosocial behavior in samples of students, community members, online respondents, clinical samples, corporate workers, and children [10,[13][14][15]22,26,64]. However, some populations (students, online respondents) and some outcomes (happiness, positive affect) have been more thoroughly studied than others. ...
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