Skip to main content

Scientific proof for karma? York U study finds small acts of kindness have big impact on emotional well-being

TORONTO, May 17, 2011 – Practicing small acts of kindness will make you a happier person, and the boost in mood stays with you for months, according to research out of York University.

More than 700 people took part in a study which charted the effects of being nice to others, in small doses, over the course of a week. Researchers asked participants to act compassionately towards someone for 5-15 minutes a day, by actively helping or interacting with them in a supportive and considerate manner. Six months later, participants reported increased happiness and self-esteem.

“The concept of compassion and kindness resonates with so many religious traditions, yet it has received little empirical evidence until recently,” says lead author Myriam Mongrain, associate professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health. “What’s amazing is that the time investment required for these changes to occur is so small. We’re talking about mere minutes a day,” she says.

Participants’ levels of depression, happiness, and self-esteem were assessed at the study’s onset, and at four subsequent points over the following six months; those in the compassionate condition reported significantly greater increases in self-esteem and happiness at six months compared to those in the control group.

So why does doing good for others make us feel good about ourselves?

“The simplest answer is that doing noble, charitable acts make us feel better about ourselves. We reaffirm that we are ‘good,’ which is a highly-valued trait in our society. It is also possible that being kind to others may help us be kind to ourselves,” Mongrain says. She notes that previous studies have demonstrated a causal relationship between compassionate behaviours and charitable self-evaluations.

“Compassion cuts both ways,” she says. “If you make a conscious decision to not be so hard on others, it becomes easier to not be so hard on yourself. Furthermore, providing support to others often means that we will get support back. That is why caring for and helping others may be the best possible thing we can do for ourselves. On a less selfish level, there is something intrinsically satisfying about helping others and witnessing their gratitude,” says Mongrain.

Not surprisingly, research has also shown that compassionate activities increase the level of meaning in one’s life, which in turn elevates levels of happiness.

Researchers expected that those with needy personalities would experience greater reductions in depressive symptoms and greater increases in happiness and self-esteem as a result of being kind to others.

“We hypothesized this would occur as a result of the reassurance [needy personalities] might extract from positive exchanges with others,” Mongrain says. “We did see some reduction in depressive symptoms for anxiously attached individuals, but further research is needed to see if there is any long-term benefit.”

The study, “Practicing Compassion Increases Happiness and Self-Esteem,” is forthcoming in the spring issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies. It is co-authored by York University researchers Jacqueline Chin and Leah Shapira. The research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

-30-

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as 200,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 10 Faculties and 28 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.


Media Contact:

Melissa Hughes, Media Relations, York University, 416 736 2100 x22097, mehughes@yorku.ca