Kindness: Doing for Others Has Benefits for Children

Helping hand.
Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Whether they’re greeting their grandparents or helping a neighbor cross the street, pre-adolescents who perform acts of kindness may increase their well-being and their popularity, according to a study by researchers at University of California-Riverside and the University of British Columbia. Results appear here in PLOS One.

Kristin Layous, a graduate student in the psychology department at UC-Riverside, discussed the results of the study, which she conducted with S. Katherine Nelson, Eva Oberle, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl. (Lyubomirsky, her advisor, is author of the positive psychology guide The How of Happiness.)

Layous says she and her team knew from previous studies that kindness interventions were linked to greater well-being in adult populations, but they wanted to know if they would also work among pre-adolescents. It seemed a good age to try because tweens “have gained some perspective taking ability and empathy,” she says. “They are able to put themselves into their classmates’ shoes.”

They also decided to see if the students experienced gains in peer acceptance. “There is a perceived popularity, which is more akin to materialism—someone who has money or ‘rules the school’—and there is more sociometric popularity, where 9 out of 10 children in a classroom like this person. We were trying to tap into that second type of popularity [by asking] ‘Do you want to be in school activities with that person?’”

In their study, 9-to-11 year olds in 19 Vancouver classrooms were randomly assigned to either a kindness intervention or a pleasant activity. The kindness group was prompted to perform three acts of kindness each week over a four-week period. The control group was told to visit three different places each week—from the zoo to a grandparent’s house—and track their whereabouts.

Both groups saw similar improvements in well-being (according to self-reported scales), but the kindness group picked up more friends. Students in the kindness group gained an average of 1.5 friends, while control-group participants gained .68.

While the study was not set up to look at the cause of these changes, Layous speculates that they could be partly due to the activities “putting out positive energy into the classroom” and enabling students “to see more positive experiences around them.”

They plan to delve deeper into the data to see how kindness activities changed individuals’ social networks. For example, says Layous, they’d like to know: “Would one person who already has seven friends boost that up to nine? Or did the person who had zero friends get a few more? The ideal would be that it worked for everybody.”

While the “downstream” benefits of prosocial behavior (such as popularity) are interesting to her, Layous says her main focus is on general well-being. For future studies, she says, “My advisor and I are really interested in the conditions under which these activities are effective. Does it work better if they do it once a week or a couple times a week? If they start out at a certain baseline of happiness or if they have a little room for improvement?” Layous also hopes to study the effect of prosocial activities among different age groups, cultures, and life circumstances (such as among those suffering from chronic diseases).