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A range of kindness activities boost happiness


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This experiment investigates the effects of a seven-day kindness activities intervention on changes in subjective happiness. The study was designed to test whether performing different types of kindness activities had differential effects on happiness. Our recent systematic review and meta-analysis of the psychological effects of kindness (Curry, et al. 2018) revealed that performing acts of kindness boosts happiness and well-being. However, we noted in that review that rarely had researchers specifically compared the effects of kindness to different recipients, such as to friends or to strangers. Thus in a single factorial design (n=683) we compare acts of kindness to strong social ties, weak social ties, novel acts of self kindness, and observing acts of kindness, against a no acts control group. The results indicate that performing kindness activities for seven days increases happiness. In addition, we report a positive correlation between the number of kind acts and increases in happiness. Neither effect differed across the experimental the groups, suggesting that kindness to strong ties, to weak ties, and to self, as well as observing acts of kindness, have equally positive effects on happiness.
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The Journal of Social Psychology
ISSN: 0022-4545 (Print) 1940-1183 (Online) Journal homepage:
A range of kindness activities boost happiness
Lee Rowland & Oliver Scott Curry
To cite this article: Lee Rowland & Oliver Scott Curry (2018): A range of kindness activities boost
happiness, The Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1469461
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Accepted Manuscript
Kindness activities boost happiness
A Range of Kindness Activities Boost Happiness
Lee Rowland
University of Oxford
Oliver Scott Curry
University of Oxford
Author Note
Dr. Lee Rowland is a Research Associate at the School of Anthropology and Museum
Ethnography, University of Oxford; Dr. Oliver Scott Curry is a Senior Researcher in the Institute
of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford
The work on this article was supported by Thanks to Jaclyn Lindsey, Luke
Williams, Andy Kent, and Ashley St Pier for research assistance.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lee Rowland, School of
Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford, 51/53 Banbury Road, Oxford,
OX2 6PE.
Keywords: kindness; happiness; well-being; positive psychology; altruism
In recent years a surge of experimental work has provided strong evidence that being
kind boosts well-being (e.g. Chancellor, Margolis, Jacobs Bao, & Lyubomirsky, 2017; Dunn,
Aknin, & Norton, 2008). Typically, two experimental protocols are adopted: a prosocial
spending paradigm where participants are offered the opportunity to spend a windfall on
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Kindness activities boost happiness
themselves or on others; or, an acts of kindness paradigm where participants are instructed to
carry out acts of kindness on other people (or themselves). Both prosocial spending (e.g. Aknin,
Sandstrom, Dunn, & Norton, 2011) and acts of kindness to self and to others (e.g. O’Connell,
O’Shea, & Gallagher, 2016) have been shown to boost happiness, and our recent meta-analysis
(Curry, Rowland, Van Lissa, Zlotowitz, McAlaney, & Whitehouse, 2018) showed that the effect
of kindness on well-being is small-to-medium (d=0.28).
However, some fundamental questions about kindness still remain (Curry et al., 2018;
Rowland, 2018). In nearly all of the studies of kindness and well-being, the recipient of kindness
is simply designated ‘other person’, thus researchers have no way of knowing if kindness was
performed on strong social ties, or weak ones (or strangers). There are theoretical bases for why
this may differentially affect wellbeing (see Curry et al., 2018). Where this difference has been
investigated in a single study, evidence supports the notion that being kind to strong ties boosts
happiness more than being kind to weak ties (Aknin et al., 2011). But it is worth noting that in
that study, participants merely recalled a time they spent money on a strong or weak tie, and did
not actually carry out any new acts of kindness in the experimental phase. The abovementioned
meta-analysis reports that spending money on friends and family yields larger effects of
increased positive affect (d=0.93; Aknin, Broesch, Hamlin, & Van de Vondervoort, 2015) than
does donating to charity (d=0.38; Aknin, Fleerackers, & Hamlin, 2014). However, the former
study was carried out in a close-knit community in rural Vanuatu with a very small sample size,
and thus the hedonic effects are likely to be substantially boosted. No studies exist that directly
compare acts of kindness to strong ties and to weak ties, thus the current study addresses this
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Kindness activities boost happiness
Do acts of kindness to oneself boost happiness? The evidence is contradictory on this
question. Nelson, Layous, Cole and Lyubomirsky (2016) report that self kindness does not
increase happiness compared with a control group, whereas O’Connel et al., (2016) report that
acts of self kindness do increase happiness. However, both studies compare acts of kindness
against novel acts control groups, which have been shown to increase happiness compared with
no acts control groups (Buchanan & Bardi, 2010). Moreover, O’Connel et al.’s study combines
kindness and gratitude into a single condition, preventing isolation of the effects of kindness. Our
study directly tests the happiness boosting effects of self kindness against a no acts control
group. An ‘observe’ group is also included, to test whether simply being attuned to kindness (i.e.
paying attention to it in one’s daily life) may also have a positive effect on happiness.
The present study compared acts of kindness to strong social ties (family and friends),
weak ties (strangers and people hardly known), novel acts of self kindness, and observing acts of
kindness, against a no acts control group. The experiment thus replicates and builds on existing
work by testing in a single design the effects of different recipients of kindness (strong ties, weak
ties, self) and of merely observing kindness on the happiness of the actor. We made five
Hypothesis 1: Happiness in the experimental conditions will increase compared with a no
acts control group
Hypothesis 2: Greater happiness increases will be observed for those being kind to others
(strong ties & weak ties) than for those being kind to themselves
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Kindness activities boost happiness
Hypothesis 3: Greater happiness increases will be observed for those being kind to strong
ties than for those being kind to weak ties
Hypothesis 4: Greater happiness increases will be observed for those performing kind
acts than for those merely observing kind acts
Hypothesis 5: Greater happiness increases will be observed for those carrying out the
greater number of kindness activities
Six-hundred and ninety one participants completed the study; but 8 of these reported being <18
years of age and were excluded from the analysis, leaving N=683 (88% female, modal age group
30 – 45 years, from 29 countries). Volunteers were recruited online via email and a request over
social media, and none were paid. They were randomly assigned to one of four experimental
groups: Strong Ties (n=132), Weak Ties/Strangers (n=114), Self (novel kind acts to self; n=148),
and Observe (actively trying to observe kind acts in their daily lives; n=136). The experiment
began on a designated date, and those participants who were not able to begin then were assigned
to a waiting list Control group (no acts of kindness; n=153). (The Control condition did not differ
from the experimental conditions in terms of: sex, χ2(2, 683) = 2.97, p = .23; age, χ2(3, 683) =
1.33, p = .72; or pre-test happiness, t(681) = -0.91, p = .363). Participants in the experimental
(kindness) groups were instructed to carry out (or to actively attempt to observe) at least one act
of kindness every day for seven days and to record them. Suggested example acts were provided.
Participants in the experimental groups were instructed to carry out different and/or more kind
activities than they normally would. A 10-point single-item self-report happiness scale (Abdel-
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Kindness activities boost happiness
Khalek, 2006) was used to measure happiness before and after the intervention. Participants were
blind to the purpose, the different groups, and the hypotheses of the study.
A one-way ANOVA confirmed that increases in happiness ( happiness over study phase,
see Table 1) differed across the five conditions: F(4, 678)=2.73, p=.03. Planned contrasts testing
hypotheses 1 – 4 stated above revealed that hypothesis 1 was supported, t(678)=3.07, p=.002,
two-tailed, d=0.28 (Lenhard & Lenhard, 2016), which after correcting for four multiple
comparisons is still significant (p<.0125). The pooled happiness increase for the experimental
conditions was M=0.46, SD=1.96, whereas the control group showed a very slight decrease (M=-
0.05, SD=1.10). The other three planned contrasts did not support hypotheses 2 – 4, t(678)=n.s.
To explore whether the total number of kindness activities completed was related to
happiness, a linear regression was calculated, which showed that number of kind acts was a
significant predictor of change in happiness, b = 0.29, t(528)= 3.04, p=.002; R2 = .017, F(1, 528)
= 9.24, p=.002. A subsequent GLM revealed that there was no interaction between number of
kindness activities and experimental group.
The results indicate that performing kindness activities for seven days increases happiness.
Additionally, the more kindness activities that one does, the greater the increase in happiness.
Neither effect differed across experimental groups, suggesting that kindness to strong ties, to
weak ties, and to self, as well as observing acts of kindness, have equally positive effects on
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Kindness activities boost happiness
The results of this study replicate previous research showing that performing acts of kindness
boosts happiness (Curry et al., 2018). In addition, it has not found evidence that kind acts to
strong ties boosts happiness more than kind acts to weak ties, thus failing to support Aknin et
al.’s (2011) finding that spending money on strong ties leads to greater happiness than spending
on weak ties. One possible explanation for this difference is that in the Aknin study participants
recalled instances of prosocial spending whereas in the present study participants actually carried
out new acts of kindness to strong or to weak ties. This discrepancy requires further exploration.
The present study also replicates the finding by O’Connell et al. (2016) that acts of self kindness
increase happiness. By contrast, it conflicts with Nelson et al.’s finding that acts of self kindness
do not increase happiness. The latter study required participants to perform three acts of self
kindness in one day for four weeks, whereas the present study required a more concentrated burst
of self kindness. It is feasible that acts of kindness spread over a long time cease to affect
happiness, and this may be especially true when indulging in kindness to oneself.
Typically in kindness experiments, a kind acts condition is compared with a non-kind acts
condition which does not rule out the possibility that kindness boosts happiness simply by it
being present in one’s life (i.e. by being attuned to the good deeds going on around you). The
present study finds some evidence in support of this hypothesis and reports that observing acts of
kindness increases happiness.
The control group in this study was not allocated randomly. Instead, participants self-selected
to that group by not starting the experiment on the designated day. We tested the severity of this
design limitation by statistically comparing the baseline data of the control group with the
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Kindness activities boost happiness
experimental groups, and found no significant differences. However, the possibility remains that
the control group did not partake in kind acts due to negative life events, and thus no increase in
happiness would be expected. Whilst we acknowledge this, we argue that the stability of
happiness in the control group across the study phase is not compatible with this alternative
explanation. This study is also limited by its heavily skewed female sample recruited through a
kindness network. Although the participants may have been unusually prosocial, the emphasis in
this study was on the effects of different recipients of kindness. Future work should explore the
effects of performing kindness by different types of givers (e.g. those high/low in prosocial
The present study has provided new evidence – obtained in a single factorial design with a
large n – that being kind to others, being kind to yourself, and actively observing the kindness
happening around us, can all boost subjective happiness. Further work is needed to explore the
nuances of the effects of kindness.
Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2006). Measuring happiness with a single-item scale. Social Behavior and
Personality: an International Journal, 34(2), 139-150.
Aknin, L. B., Broesch, T., Hamlin, J. K., & Van de Vondervoort, J. W. (2015). Prosocial
behavior leads to happiness in a small-scale rural society. Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General, 144(4), 788.
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Aknin, L. B., Fleerackers, A. L., & Hamlin, J. K. (2014). Can third-party observers detect the
emotional rewards of generous spending?. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(3), 198-203.
Aknin, L. B., Sandstrom, G. M., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2011). It's the recipient that
counts: Spending money on strong social ties leads to greater happiness than spending on weak
social ties. PloS one, 6(2), e17018.
Buchanan, K. E., & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life
satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(3), 235-237.
Chancellor, J., Margolis, S., Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). Everyday prosociality in
the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing. Emotion. Advance
online publication.
Curry, O. S., Rowland, L., Van Lissa, C., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (in
press). Happy to Help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts
of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes
happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.
Lenhard, W., & Lenhard, A. (2016). Calculation of Effect Sizes. Psychometrica. Retrieved from
Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat
yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological
flourishing. Emotion, 16(6), 850.
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O’Connell, B. H., O’Shea, D., & Gallagher, S. (2016). Enhancing social relationships through
positive psychology activities: a randomised controlled trial. The Journal of Positive
Psychology, 11(2), 149-162.
Rowland, L. (2018). Kindness – society’s golden chain? Psychologist, 31, 30-34.
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TABLE 1: Mean pre- and post-kindness activities happiness, change in happiness, and kind
activities per condition
Mean happiness
Condition T1 (SD) T2 (SD)  happiness (SD) Mean kind activities
Strong Ties
(n=132) 6.83 (1.76) 7.27 (1.82) .45* (2.06) 6.7
Weak Ties
(n=114) 6.78 (2.06) 7.31 (1.81) .53* (1.83) 6.0
Self (n=148) 6.78 (1.85) 7.32 (1.62) .55* (1.95) 6.4
Observe (n=136) 6.58 (1.92) 6.89 (1.85) .31* (1.98) 7.9
Control (n=153) 6.58 (1.90) 6.53 (2.03) -0.05 (1.10) N/A
* p < .0125
... A similar conclusion was drawn in a recent experimental study. Adult participants from 29 countries were directly instructed to perform at least one kind act each day for strong social ties, weak social ties, or the self, for 7 consecutive days (Rowland & Curry, 2019). These kindness conditions were compared to both an active control group, in which regular kind acts were observed, and a selfselected waitlist control group. ...
... The results showed improved happiness among the three kindness conditions compared to both control groups, but there were no differences between kindness directed at the self, strong or weak social ties. These results indicated that the effects of kindness did not vary as a function of the target (Alden & Trew, 2013;Rowland & Curry, 2019). However, these prior studies only measured aspects of emotional wellbeing, limiting conclusions about overall mental wellbeing (i.e., including social and psychological wellbeing; Keyes, 2002;Ryff, 1989) and psychological distress. ...
... By contrast, two prior studies-in which participant instructions for performing kind acts aligned most strongly to ours-found no differences between weak and strong social ties (Alden & Trew, 2013;Rowland & Curry, 2019). One possibility for the contradictory findings is that To whom should I be kind? ...
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... Therefore, by implication, happiness seems to become an important question only later in life. In contrast to the lack of happiness research in childhood, philosophical and educational views have long emphasized the intrinsic value of happiness in childhood and its significance for human flourishing -happiness has even been considered as the 'final purpose of education' (Altarejos, 1983;Gilead, 2012;Naval & Altarejos, 2000;Rousseau, 1905). Empirical evidence has also shown that children who are not happy due to maladaptive parenting or environmental issues have adjustment problems both concurrently and later in life (e.g., Logan et al., 2009;Mychailyszyn et al., 2010;Staudt, 2001). ...
... Most existing research on how happiness is related to social and intellectual functioning has been conducted among adults, and the findings suggest that the relations may be bidirectional. On the one hand, consistent with the theoretical view that people are rewarded with 'warm-glow' feelings by performing prosocial behaviors (e.g., Andreoni, 1990;Taufik et al., 2015), adults feel happier after acting to benefit others (Aknin et al., 2013(Aknin et al., , 2015(Aknin et al., , 2018Dunn et al., 2014;Otake et al., 2006;Rowland & Curry, 2019;Rudd et al., 2014). Daily moral acts predict gains in momentary happiness relative to baseline (Hofmann et al., 2014). ...
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... The greater the cost, the more generous the action (Batson, 1998;Batson & Shaw, 1991). Prosocial spending is generous in the sense that resources are voluntarily given so that others may benefit (e.g., Aknin et al., 2012aAknin et al., , 2012bCurry et al., 2018;Layous et al., 2017;Nelson et al., 2016;Rowland & Curry, 2019). ...
... That recipient-centered motives for prosocial spending enhance well-being but self-centered motives do not underscores the importance of accounting for the motivational context of prosocial behavior and not limiting examination to observable actions. To be sure, interpersonal acts of kindness have clear benefits (Curry et al., 2018;Rowland & Curry, 2019). But the rewards of acting kindly, or in this case spending on others, often depend on givers' motives: When givers are focused on benefiting recipients, personal rewards improve. ...
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... Aknin et al. (2015) found that both adults and children were more likely to feel happy when making donations than when receiving donations in a separate study of children and adults in a small town in Vanuatu. Rowland and Curry (2018) statistically analyzed the survey data of 692 participants, showing that the number of personal charitable activities was positively related to subjective happiness. ...
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When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, popular culture encourages a focus on oneself. By contrast, substantial evidence suggests that what consistently makes people happy is focusing prosocially on others. In the current study, we contrasted the mood- and well-being-boosting effects of prosocial behavior (i.e., doing acts of kindness for others or for the world) and self-oriented behavior (i.e., doing acts of kindness for oneself) in a 6-week longitudinal experiment. Across a diverse sample of participants (N = 473), we found that the 2 types of prosocial behavior led to greater increases in psychological flourishing than did self-focused and neutral behavior. In addition, we provide evidence for mechanisms explaining the relative improvements in flourishing among those prompted to do acts of kindness-namely, increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions. Those assigned to engage in self-focused behavior did not report improved psychological flourishing, positive emotions, or negative emotions relative to controls. The results of this study contribute to a growing literature supporting the benefits of prosocial behavior and challenge the popular perception that focusing on oneself is an optimal strategy to boost one's mood. People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves. Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead. (PsycINFO Database Record
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Humans are extraordinarily prosocial, and research conducted primarily in North America indicates that giving to others is emotionally rewarding. To examine whether the hedonic benefits of giving represent a universal feature of human behavior, we extended upon previous cross-cultural examinations by investigating whether inhabitants of a small-scale, rural, and isolated village in Vanuatu, where villagers have little influence from urban, Western culture, survive on subsistence farming without electricity, and have minimal formal education, report or display emotional rewards from engaging in prosocial (vs. personally beneficial) behavior. In Study 1, adults were randomly assigned to purchase candy for either themselves or others and then reported their positive affect. Consistent with previous research, adults purchasing goods for others reported greater positive emotion than adults receiving resources for themselves. In Study 2, 2- to 5-year-old children received candy and were subsequently asked to engage in costly giving (sharing their own candy with a puppet) and non-costly giving (sharing the experimenter's candy with a puppet). Emotional expressions were video-recorded during the experiment and later coded for happiness. Consistent with previous research conducted in Canada, children displayed more happiness when giving treats away than when receiving treats themselves. Moreover, the emotional rewards of giving were largest when children engaged in costly (vs. non-costly) giving. Taken together, these findings indicate that the emotional rewards of giving are detectable in people living in diverse societies and support the possibility that the hedonic benefits of generosity are universal. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
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Despite the robust relationship between well-being and social relationships, the latter has received little examination within positive psychology activities (PPAs). This study aimed to test whether kindness- and gratitude-based PPAs, through positive social interaction with peers, enhanced relationship satisfaction. Using a longitudinal randomised controlled design, 225 participants were assigned to one of three conditions (relationship-focused, self-focused or control) and completed measures of relationship satisfaction, social support and happiness on three occasions (baseline, post-intervention and six weeks). The experimental PPAs were relationship-focused (involving social interaction) or self-focused (no social interaction). Those who completed relationship-focused PPAs had greater increases in relationship satisfaction than the self-focused and active control activities at six-week follow-up. Additionally, only those in the relationship-focused condition felt their existing friendships had improved at intervention cessation. Regardless of participants’ initial levels of social support, the intervention effects remained. In conclusion, PPAs fostering social kindness and gratitude significantly strengthened relationship satisfaction.
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Can others detect the emotional consequences of our personal choices? Here, we investigate whether third-party observers can detect the emotional benefits of two factors shown to influence self-reported happiness: the speed with which people make decisions and the generosity of spending choices. Participants were randomly assigned to purchase a goody bag either for themselves or for a sick child, and to choose the contents of this goody bag either as quickly as possible, or by taking as much time as needed. Then, participants reported their current emotional state and were rated for happiness by a research assistant blind to their spending condition. Analyses revealed that purchasing a gift for someone else not only improved participants' self-reported mood, but that observers could detect these affective differences as well. Observers also rated participants who made their spending decision more quickly as happier, although participants did not report these emotional differences.
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This study examined the accuracy of measuring happiness by a single item (Do you feel happy in general?) answered on an 11-point scale (0-10). Its temporal stability was 0.86. The correlations between the single item and both the Oxford Happiness Inventory (OHI; Argyle, Martin, & Lu, 1995; Hills & Argyle, 1998) and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985; Pavot & Diener, 1993) were highly significant and positive, denoting good concurrent validity. Moreover, the single item had a good convergent validity because it was highly and positively correlated with optimism, hope, self-esteem, positive affect, extraversion, and self-ratings of both physical and mental health. Furthermore, the divergent validity of the single item has been adequately demonstrated through its significant and negative correlations with anxiety, pessimism, negative affect, and insomnia. It was concluded that measuring happiness by a single item is reliable, valid, and viable in community surveys as well as in cross-cultural comparisons.