Pursuing happiness through small acts of kindness


Myriam Mongrain

Myriam Mongrain

Perfect happiness may be an elusive state but there are surprisingly simple things we can do to work towards it. Practicing small acts of kindness is a start, suggests clinical psychologist and York Psychology Professor Myriam Mongrain, who recently delivered a talk hosted by the Graduate Psychology Student Association at York based on her  paper “Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem,” published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2011. A research study by Mongrain and colleagues shows that the effects of being charitable to others  leads to a measurable increase in happiness.

More than 700 people took part in the research, which charted the effect of being nice to others in small doses over the course of a week. Researchers asked participants to act compassionately towards someone by five to 15 minutes a day by actively helping or interacting with them in a supportive and considerate manner. Six months later, participants reported increased happiness and self-esteem.

“The concept of kindness and compassion resonated with so many religious traditions, but has received little empiracle evidence until recently,” says Mongrain. “Considering the benefits, the time needed to invest is very small.”

Participants’ levels of depression, happiness and self-esteem were assessed at the study’s onset, and at four subsequent points over the next six months. Those in the compassionate condition reported significantly greater increases in self-esteem and happiness at six months compared to those in the control group.

So how does such a straightforward idea work?

“The simplest answer is that doing noble, charitable acts is hardwired and may have evolutionary benefits. It makes us feel good, improves our social connections, which may improve our immune functioning,” Mongrain says. “Being compassionate is not only good for our self-esteem, but we also reaffirm our innate goodness, which is a highly valued trait in our society.”

Compassion may also improve our physical health. Previous studies have shown a causal relationship between compassionate behaviours and physiological responses, notes Mongrain, including the rewarding effects of oxytocin, known as the “love molecule.”

Story courtesy of York U Magazine