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To boost your mental well-being, simply recall, right now, an act of kindness

Just a few weeks ago, a group of mid­dle school stu­dents in Alaba­ma made the news for post­ing pos­i­tive notes on the lock­ers of fel­low stu­dents. For Christ­mas, a few Attle­boro, MA, stu­dents chipped in to buy their beloved school jan­i­tor new boots as a present. And in Decem­ber, a Michi­gan wait­ress received a $2,020 tip for a $23 din­ner bill, spark­ing the “2020 Tip Chal­lenge.”

Peo­ple per­form acts of kind­ness both to do good and to feel good. Research finds that being kind makes us hap­py, can help to low­er our blood pres­sure, and encour­ages stronger social con­nec­tions. Now, a new study sug­gests that we can access some of these ben­e­fits sim­ply by recall­ing acts of kind­ness we did in the past—making kind­ness a gift that keeps on giv­ing.

Researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, con­duct­ed a three-day exper­i­ment with 532 under­grad­u­ate stu­dents. The stu­dents were ran­dom­ly assigned to one of four tasks: 1) per­form­ing acts of kind­ness; 2) recall­ing acts of kind­ness they did in the past; 3) per­form­ing and recall­ing acts of kind­ness; and 4) nei­ther per­form­ing nor recall­ing acts of kind­ness.

On day one, stu­dents in groups 1 and 3 were asked to per­form three acts of kind­ness for some­one else in the next 24 hours. As exam­ples, the researchers sug­gest­ed things like “cook­ing din­ner for friends or fam­i­ly, doing a chore for a fam­i­ly mem­ber, pay­ing for someone’s cof­fee in line behind you, vis­it­ing an elder­ly rel­a­tive, or writ­ing a thank you let­ter.” On day two, stu­dents in groups 2 and 3 were asked to recall acts of kind­ness they did pri­or to the exper­i­ment. On each of the three days, par­tic­i­pants filled out a sur­vey that looked at their pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive feel­ings over the past 24 hours and their over­all life sat­is­fac­tion.

The researchers found that study par­tic­i­pants across all the kind­ness groups saw an uptick in their well-being over the course of the exper­i­ment. Par­tic­i­pants report­ed an increase in pos­i­tive feel­ings and life sat­is­fac­tion and a decrease in neg­a­tive feel­ings whether they per­formed acts of kind­ness, recalled acts of kind­ness, or did both. And their improved well-being was endur­ing, remain­ing fair­ly sta­ble through day three of the study.

You might imag­ine that par­tic­i­pants who both per­formed and recalled acts of kind­ness would be the hap­pi­est, but doing both didn’t seem to pro­vide an addi­tion­al ben­e­fit. As the researchers sum it up, “Indi­vid­u­als who seek to effi­cient­ly improve their well-being may be just as suc­cess­ful by remem­ber­ing kind acts that they have per­formed in the past as actu­al­ly doing more such acts in the future.”

Does this mean we can sim­ply sit at home and pon­der our past gen­eros­i­ty, rather than get­ting out into the world and being kind to oth­ers? The answer is no, of course, even beyond all the altru­is­tic rea­sons you might have for being kind.

We do not sug­gest that peo­ple should stop being kind to oth­ers. Indeed, hap­pi­ness seek­ers should con­tin­ue to act proso­cial­ly towards oth­ers to cre­ate more mem­o­ries of these acts,” the researchers write. After all, you have to per­form acts of kind­ness in order to have acts to remem­ber.

The major take­away from this study is a reminder not to for­get all of our past acts of kind­ness, which can also be a source of well-being. If you’re look­ing for a quick boost, take a few min­utes to recall the last time you did some­thing nice for some­one. And the next time you per­form an act of kind­ness, make sure you log that kind­ness mem­o­ry so you can revis­it it lat­er.

– Shan­na B. Tiay­on, Ph.D., is a soci­ol­o­gist with a spe­cial­iza­tion in Social Psy­chol­o­gy, a well-being con­sul­tant and a con­trib­u­tor to Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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