If you are driving in the United States, you may see a common bumper sticker on passing vehicles that reads: “Perform random acts of kindness.” The saying is meant to urge people to do kind things for others without thinking or planning ahead.
But several studies suggest there are some very good reasons to think about ways to be kind and actually plan out that type of behavior.
Research shows that acts of kindness can make us feel better and improve our health. Researchers also say kindness played an important part in how humans developed. In other words, they say scientific evidence suggests that we are designed to be kind.
The Associated Press spoke with several researchers who have studied the subject.
One of them is Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of California San Diego. Kindness, he said, is as much a part of us “as our anger or our lust or our grief or as our desire for revenge.”
University of Oxford anthropologist Oliver Curry is the research director at Kindlab. Kindlab is a non-profit organization. Its goal is to educate and urge people to choose kindness.
Curry claims that “kindness is much older than religion.” He adds that it “does seem to be universal,” meaning it is something all humans share.
“The basic reason why people are kind, he explained, “is that we are social animals.”
Other research has shown that many people prize kindness over other values.
University of London psychologist Anat Bardi studies value systems in people. In one study, researchers gave people a list of values – such as kindness, creativity, ambition, tradition, security, seeking social justice, and seeking power. When asked to pick the most important, kindness won.
Curry said there is another reason people want to be kind. Under the right conditions, “we all benefit from kindness.”
When it comes to a species surviving, “kindness pays, friendliness pays,” said Brian Hare, an anthropologist at Duke University in North Carolina. He wrote the book “Survival of the Friendliest.”
Hare said kindness and working together can be good for many species -- whether it’s bacteria, flowers or bonobos. He explained that the more friends you have, and the more individuals you help, the more successful you become.
As an example, he compared bonobos with chimpanzees. Chimps can attack those outside their group. Bonobos, on the other hand, do not kill but help outsiders. Male bonobos, Hare added, are far more successful at mating than male chimps.
McCullough says bonobos are the exception, not the rule. Most animals are only helpful to those in their close “family” groups but are not kind or helpful to strangers. This, he adds, separates us from other species. It shows our human ability to reason.
For example, humans realize that there is not much difference between those close to us and strangers. Strangers can help us if we are kind to them, McCullough said. He adds that this reasoning “is the secret ingredient.” It is why we help strangers in need. In English we even have the expression: to rely on the kindness of strangers.
But research shows that our bodies can also reward us for being kind.
University of California Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has tested this idea in many experiments over the past 20 years. She has found repeatedly that people feel better when they are kind to others, even more so than when they are kind to themselves.
“Acts of kindness," Lyubomirsky said, "are very powerful.”
In one experiment, the AP reports, she asked people to perform three acts of kindness for other individuals each week. She asked a different group to do three acts of self-kindness. These acts could be small, like opening a door for someone. The people who were kind to others reported feeling happier and more connected to the world.
Curry, from Oxford, examined many different studies that were similar to Lyubomirsky’s research. He found at least 27 studies showing the same result -- that being kind makes people feel better emotionally.
But it is not just emotional. It is also physical. Lyubomirsky studied a group of people with the disease multiple sclerosis. She found that they felt better physically when helping others.
Her research also showed that people who performed more acts of kindness had less inflammation, or harmful swelling, in their bodies. And in other studies, Lyubomirsky said more antiviral genes were found in people who performed acts of kindness.
And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report. I’m Anna Matteo.
Seth Borenstein reported this for the Associated Press. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
bumper sticker – n. a strip of paper or plastic that has a printed message and that is made to be stuck on the bumper of a car, truck, etc.
random – adj. without definite aim, direction, rule, or method
lust – n. a strong feeling of sexual desire
grief – n. a cause of deep sadness
revenge – n. the act of doing something to hurt someone because that person did something that hurt you
ambition – n. a particular goal or aim : something that a person hopes to do or achieve
obey – v. to do what someone tells you to do or what a rule, law, etc., says you must do : obedience – n. the act of obeying : willingness to obey
benefit – n. a good or helpful result or effect
ingredient – n. : one of the things that are used to make a food, product, etc. : a quality or characteristic that makes something possible
rely – v. to trust in or depend on