Performing acts of kindness and helping other people can be good for people’s health and wellbeing, but not all good-hearted behaviour is equally beneficial to the giver. The strength of the link depends on many factors, including the type of kindness, the definition of wellbeing, and the giver’s age, gender and other demographic factors.

“Prosocial behaviour — altruism, co-operation, trust and compassion — are all necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society,” says lead author Bryant P.H. Hui, PhD, a research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. “It is part of the shared culture of humankind, and our analysis shows that it also contributes to mental and physical health.”

Previous studies have suggested that people who engage in more prosocial behaviour are happier and have better mental and physical health than those who don’t spend as much time helping others. However, not all studies have found evidence for that link, and the strength of the connection varies widely in the research literature.

To better understand what drives that variation, Hui and his colleagues performed a meta-analysis of 201 independent studies, comprising 198,213 total participants, that looked at the connection between prosocial behaviour and wellbeing. Overall, they found that there was a modest link between the two. However, although the effect size was small, it is still meaningful says Hui, given how many people perform acts of kindness every day.

“More than a quarter of Americans volunteer, for example,” he said. “A modest effect size can still have a significant impact at a societal level when many people are participating in the behaviour.”

Digging deeper into the research, Hui and his colleagues found that random acts of kindness, such as helping an older neighbour carry groceries, were more strongly associated with overall wellbeing than formal prosocial behaviour, such as scheduled volunteering for a charity.

That may be because informal helping is more casual and spontaneous and may more easily lead to forming social connections, according to Hui. Informal giving is also more varied and less likely to become stale or monotonous, he said.

The researchers also found a stronger link between kindness and what is known as eudaimonic wellbeing (which focuses on self-actualisation, as in realising one’s potential and finding meaning in life), than between kindness and hedonic wellbeing (which refers to happiness and positive feelings).

The effects varied by age, according to Hui, who began this research at the University of Cambridge. Younger givers reported higher levels of overall wellbeing, eudaimonic wellbeing, and psychological functioning; while older givers reported higher levels of physical health. Also, women showed stronger relationships between pro-sociality and several measures of wellbeing compared with men — perhaps because women are stereotypically expected to be more caring and giving, and thus derive a stronger sense of good feelings for acting in accordance with those social norms, according to the study.

Finally, the researchers found that studies that were specifically designed to measure the connection between pro-sociality and wellbeing showed a stronger link between the two than studies that analysed data from other large surveys not specifically designed to study the topic.

Future research should examine several other potentially important moderators that the research literature has largely ignored so far the researchers suggest, for example, the potential effects of ethnicity and social class of the giver. Researchers might also examine whether more pro-sociality is always a good thing, or whether there is an “ideal level” of pro-sociality beyond which too much kindness and giving become detrimental to the giver, says Hui.

The study has been published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

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