In Sight

Is Kindness Contagious?

Studies show that being kind—and even observing kindness—can create a ripple effect of happiness.

© iStockphoto / Petar Chernaev

by Bridget LeRoy

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Buying a cup of coffee for the next person in line, helping an elderly person cross the street or simply smiling at strangers are all ways of spreading a little sunshine and making ourselves feel good at the same time. This may be common knowledge for some, but now, it’s also scientific.

A series of studies in well-known journals over the past decade have borne proof that kindness is, in fact, contagious. A duo from the University of California San Diego and Harvard University conducted an exhaustive study proving that cooperative behavior can spread from one person to many, in a sort of ripple effect of happiness.

In the original research, published by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in the British Medical Journal in 2008, the team ventured that “Emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by mimicry and ‘emotional contagion’ . . . People can ‘catch’ emotional states they observe in others over time frames ranging from seconds to weeks.” Kindness, they observed, spread to at least three degrees of separation.

“Emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by mimicry and ‘emotional contagion.’ ”

Dr. Fowler added, “Personally it’s very exciting to learn that kindness spreads to people I don’t know or have never met. We have direct experience of giving and seeing people’s immediate reactions, but we don’t typically see how our generosity cascades through the social network to affect the lives of dozens or maybe hundreds of other people.”

More recently, a study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2015 gave the name “moral elevation” to the physical feeling engendered by viewing kindness. When 104 college students were shown videos of noble acts of compassion and kindness, there was an increase in heart rate and brain activity. “It’s kind of cool to see that what’s happening in your body is an impetus to prosociality and inspires people to give and be kind,” Dr. Sarina Saturn, one of the researchers, told the Greater Good Science Center.

Of course, the opposite also holds true. A 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology also shows how making sarcastic comments and exhibiting rude behavior can also spread, negatively affecting classroom and workplace performance and causing greater stress in individuals.

To combat the negative and spread the positive, organizations have sprung up to help people help people, including the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, established in 1995, whose mission is to “practice kindness and to pass it on to others.” All materials from the RAK Foundation are free, and it does not accept donations. The website features further “kindness research,” citing additional scientific studies that show performing acts of compassion promotes mental health, reduces stress and can even help improve test scores for students.

Scientifically, the smallest kindness performed today has vast implications, as it spreads from one person to another, locally and globally.