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  What Random Acts of Kindness Do For the Brain
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What Random Acts of Kindness Do For the Brain

The science behind why doing good feels so good

Madonna Diaz-Refugia

“It’s the little things.” We've probably all heard that phrase. The phrase is usually used as an encouragement to appreciate the small joys in life like drinking a mug of your favorite warm beverage or seeing an adorable dog while out for a run. These micro moments of happiness can add up, and whenever we’re feeling blue recollecting these tiny experiences can help us smile. 

It’s easy to forget, however, that the phrase “It’s the little things” also includes small acts of kindness that help brighten our day; like when someone holds the door open for us or lets us jump ahead in line at the grocery store when they see we only have one item. 

Yes, these bite-sized actions can brighten our day. But feeling good during these moments isn’t just an emotional response. There is actual science behind the feel-good sensations that come with these random acts of kindness. 

Increase Happiness With Random Acts of Kindness 

Studies have shown that acting with compassion and doing a good deed can increase happiness and decrease depression.

“About half of the participants in one study reported that they feel stronger and more energetic after helping others,” Christine Carter Ph.D. explains in her book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “Many also reported feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.” 

So, how can we get to a happier, more tranquil state of mind through compassion? One way to evoke more compassion in your life is to volunteer. Dr. Carter adds, “People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Giving help to others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44% lower likelihood of dying early, and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church.”

But why do compassionate acts have such a beneficial effect on our health? What’s actually happening in our brains during random acts of kindness?

Acts of Kindness Produce Serotonin, Dopamine and the ‘Love Hormone

When we engage in a kind act, our brains release oxytocin. In a Harvard Health Publishing article published in 2023, Howard E. LeWine, MD explains that “oxytocin is a hormone that's produced in the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland.” What’s even more interesting is that you don’t even have to be the one doing the kind act to feel the benefits of oxytocin. Simply seeing an act of kindness produces oxytocin, which increases our self-esteem and optimism.

“It is a type of hormone in your body that promotes positive feelings,” LeWine adds. “Our bodies also produce oxytocin when we're excited by our sexual partner, and when we fall in love. That's why it has earned the nicknames ‘love hormone’ and ‘cuddle hormone.’"

Along with oxytocin, engaging in these small gestures produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood in the brain. “Kindness may improve resiliency by promoting feelings of happiness and peace and supporting immunity,” explained Ron Breazeale Ph.D. in an article for Pyschology Today published in 2012. An added bonus—while serotonin can make you happy and calm you down, it can also help heal wounds.

Last but not least, joining this trifecta of joy-sparkers is dopamine. In an article for Medical Daily, Lizette Borreli says that “performing random acts of kindness helps boost your psychological health by activating the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, often referred to as a ‘helper's high.’” 

What Is a Small Random Act of Kindness?

Whether you’re sending flowers to a friend or letting a fellow driver merge into your lane, small acts of kindness can really make a difference. In their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, scientists James H. Fowler and Nicholas Christakis describe their research found that kindness ripples out, affecting our friends, our friends’ friends and our friends’ friends’ friends.

Kindness is contagious. Here are a few ways to pay it forward with a small act and make a big impact:

  • Take someone to your favorite place
  • Send a care package
  • Shovel your neighbor’s snow
  • Give someone a compliment
  • Pick up trash in your neighborhood

So go ahead and bake a cake for your coworkers just “because,” or lend an ear to a friend in need. It may not change the world overnight, but it will spread some joy within your community and brighten your day.

Madonna Diaz-Refugia is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Their work has been featured on Reductress, WFMU and Elite Daily. Follow them on Twitter.

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