Kindness research briefing

What comes to mind first when you think of “being kind”?

Maybe you think about a friend or family member you know you can rely on for comfort and support, maybe you think of a neighbour who always makes an effort to be friendly when you cross paths, or maybe you think of those who volunteer to help in their communities.

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Read more from the briefing below

There are many definitions of kindness, and kindness is often entwined with related concepts like empathy, compassion, and altruism. At its core, researchers suggest that kindness is a gesture motivated by genuine, warm feelings for others.

Kindness is not just an emotion but is defined by our actions. These “acts of kindness” do not have to be grand gestures. Listening to and being with someone as they talk about a bad day, holding the door for someone who has their arms full, or being accepting towards those around us can all be acts of kindness. However, it is important to note that kindness also involves the perception of others, in that an action we intend to be kind or helpful may not always be perceived by the recipient in that way.2 It has been proposed that kindness has three main facets: considering the feelings of others, having everyday acceptance, courtesy and love towards others and behaving honourably towards them.

Kindness is also closely related to compassion and altruism. Altruism refers to an action that benefits someone else but at a cost, or no benefit, to oneself.3 Therefore, many acts of kindness will also be examples of altruism. Compassion is similar to kindness in that it involves feeling empathy and a desire to help, but specifically in the context of the suffering, hardship or distress of others4. So acts of kindness in difficult times may often come from a place of compassion.  

It may feel intuitive that kindness can help others, but there is a growing body of research to show that being kind also has benefits for our own mental health and wellbeing. For Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, the Mental Health Foundation has chosen to highlight and celebrate kindness, to others, ourselves, and society more broadly as one way to promote and protect good mental health for all. 

Kindness can have real benefits for our mental health and wellbeing. In April of 2020, the Mental Health Foundation worked with YouGov to conduct an online survey of 4,246 UK adults aged 18+. We found that 63% of UK adults agree that when other people are kind it has a positive impact on their mental health, and the same proportion agree that being kind to others has a positive impact on their mental health. 

Studies have found that being kind is linked to increased feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction5–9 for people of all ages.10,11   

Across a range of studies, people who carry out acts of kindness are found to experience greater well-being.5 This seems to be the case regardless of whether the recipient of our kindness is those close to us, society more broadly, or ourselves.9 There is even some evidence to suggest that simply remembering kind things we have done in the past may increase our wellbeing.

Such acts of kindness can include big and small behaviours, from letting someone know how much you appreciate them to formal volunteering. One study of UK adolescent perspectives of kindness identified a broad range of behaviours that can be considered kind, including things like providing emotional or practical support to others (in both good and bad times), expressing forgiveness of others, being inclusive, and treating others with honesty and generosity.12 

There are many reasons why kindness may have this positive effect: it can boost our mood, help us feel more capable, and strengthen our relationships with others.12–14 There is also some evidence that behaviours that help or benefit others, like kindness, can help us to buffer the negative effects of stress on our health.11,15 It has been observed that times of stress can prompt people to respond with empathy and altruism.16 This tendency toward helping others in times of stress has been called the “tend-and-befriend” response. It has been suggested that it is an adaptive response that allows us to reach out to others to provide and receive much-needed support in difficult times.17  In general, kindness is thought to be one of the ways that people create, maintain, and strengthen their social connections,13. There is some evidence that reminding people of their connectedness to those around them may increase their intention to help others.18  

Our motivation for helping others may also influence how kindness supports our well-being and mental health. When we act with kindness, it generally means our behaviour comes from a place of genuine and warm feelings for others rather than from obligation or anticipation of reward.1 There is some evidence that those who report helping others or volunteering for proactive reasons (e.g. they feel it is important, they want to help) experience greater benefits than those who help because they were told to or for self-gain. 19,20  

Overall, there is evidence to suggest that kindness is one important way we can help others and promote and protect our mental health and wellbeing. The effects of kindness may be maximised when it helps us to strengthen our social connections when it is done voluntarily and for unselfish reasons, and when we feel that we have had a positive effect on others.13 

Being kind and understanding to others and ourselves is also important for our mental health and wellbeing. In our survey, nearly half (48%) of UK adults agreed that being kind to themselves positively affects their mental health. 

Our capacity to be kind and compassionate towards ourselves may be influenced by various things, for example, how we see ourselves and the resources and support available to us. One model of compassion suggests that if we do not believe that someone is deserving of help, then we may feel anger or shame instead of compassion; alternatively, if we do not feel we have the resources to cope or help, then we may feel anxiety, distress or fear.4 One study with university students found that we are more likely to be kind to ourselves when we receive social support and kindness from others,21 suggesting that the support of others may help us to be kind to ourselves, but also that when we are kind to ourselves, we are in a better position to be kind to others.  

In our survey, 67% of UK adults agreed that it is important to look after their own needs and be kind to others, and 41% agreed that they try to make sure they make time to be kind to themselves. 

We can cultivate kindness towards ourselves and others in different ways.  One approach that is gaining prominence is the practice of loving-kindness meditation, which involves directing unconditional kind attitudes toward oneself and others.22 There is some evidence to suggest that this technique can lead to a range of positive outcomes, including increased wellbeing, feelings of connection with others and self-compassion, and reduced stress and depression symptoms.22–24  These can, in turn, motivate us to engage in behaviours that benefit the wider community.24,25 

Gratitude also has an important role to play in encouraging kindness. When we express gratitude to someone who has helped us, research suggests that this can make them feel more valued and motivate them to act kindly again in future.26  In fact, even just feeling grateful, particularly in response to someone else’s kindness, is associated with greater wellbeing and increased behaviours that benefit others.27 Interventions that focus on gratitude, particularly those where participants directly act on feelings of gratitude such as writing and delivering a thank-you note, may therefore have a significant part to play in fostering kindness.27    

Efforts to nurture kindness at an early age may be prudent, given evidence that kindness and altruistic tendencies may be innate in children.28  School-based kindness interventions, which are often focused on encouraging children to carry out intentional acts of kindness, can help children view things from the perspective of others, improve well-being and boost their acceptance among peers.10,29  The benefits of teaching kindness to children are also likely to extend beyond the children and the direct recipients of kindness - to teachers, classrooms and the wider school community.29   

It is clear, then, that kindness can, in turn, inspire kindness.  Evidence suggests that the emotional rewards of engaging in kindness can create a “virtuous circle” that promotes further kindness.14   To harness this cycle, it is important that kindness is valued within institutions.  In the healthcare sector, it has been suggested that a focus on “intelligent kindness”, in which efforts are made to nurture kindness and compassion, could result in wide-reaching improvements in patient satisfaction and staff morale.30  This model posits that if healthcare staff are well supported and provided with the space to reflect and process the emotions that arise from the challenging work they do, they are more likely to feel safe and affirmed. Their capacity for empathy is likely to expand, resulting in greater trust and connection among staff and patients. This ultimately leads to better outcomes for patients and staff and creates an environment that facilitates more kindness. Organisational decisions are then judged by the degree to which they support this cycle of kindness.30  This represents one model of embedding kindness in organisations' values, which could be applied across a range of sectors and institutions. 

In our survey, over half (55%) of UK adults agree that it is important that politicians value kindness, and over a third agree that it is important that politicians prioritise kindness in policy making (35%) and service provision (37%). However, when asked specifically about the current pandemic, 40% of UK adults agreed that it is important that politicians prioritise kindness in policy-making and 43% agreed it is important politicians prioritise kindness in service provision after the pandemic.

Overall, kindness to ourselves and others has important benefits for our mental health and wellbeing, but kindness goes beyond individual action.

It is important for our communities, organisations, and political institutions. Kindness has a critical role to play in policy, and policies rooted in the values of kindness, empathy, dignity, and respect have great potential to reduce inequality and discrimination and strengthen relationships and trust between governments, citizens, and society. As part of this week, the Mental Health Foundation is calling on central and local governments across the UK to take preventative action rooted in justice and kindness to protect people’s mental health. Further exploration of why kindness matters in public policy are available in our policy briefing.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 4,246 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24/04/2020 and 26/04/2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and represent all UK adults (aged 18+). 

1. Canter D, Youngs D, Yaneva M. Towards a measure of kindness: An exploration of a neglected interpersonal trait. Pers Individ Dif. 2017;106:15–20.  

2. Caldwell C. Understanding Kindness – A Moral Duty of Human Resource Leaders. J Values-Based Leadersh. 2017;10(2).  

3. APA. Altruism [Internet]. APA Dictionary of Psychology. [cited 2020 May 1]. Available from: 

4. Goetz JL, Keltner D, Simon-Thomas E. Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychol Bull. 2010;136(3):351–74.  

5. Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2018;76:320–9.  

6. Ko K, Margolis S, Revord J, Lyubomirsky S. Comparing the effects of performing and recalling acts of kindness. J Posit Psychol. 2019;  

7. Nelson SK, Layous K, Cole SW, Lyubomirsky S. Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion. 2016;16(6):850–61.  

8. Aknin LB, Barrington-Leigh CP, Dunn EW, Helliwell JF, Burns J, Biswas-Diener R, et al. Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013;104(4):635–52.  

9. Rowland L, Curry OS. A range of kindness activities boost happiness. J Soc Psychol. 2019;159(3):340–3.  

10. Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S. Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being. PLoS One. 2012;7(12).  

11. Poulin MJ. Volunteering predicts health among those who value others: Two national studies. Heal Psychol. 2014;33(2):120–9.  

12. Cotney JL, Banerjee R. Adolescents’ Conceptualizations of Kindness and its Links with Well-being: A Focus Group Study. J Soc Pers Relat. 2019;36(2):599–617.  

13. Helliwell J, Aknin L, Shiplett H, Huang H, Wang S. Social Capital and Prosocial Behaviour as Sources of Well-Being. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research; 2017. (NBER Working Paper Series). Report No.: 23761.  

14. Aknin LB, Van de Vondervoort JW, Hamlin JK. Positive feelings reward and promote prosocial behavior. Curr Opin Psychol. 2018;20:55–9.  

15. Poulin MJ, Holman EA. Helping hands, healthy body? Oxytocin receptor gene and prosocial behavior interact to buffer the association between stress and physical health. Horm Behav. 2013;63(3):510–7.  

16. Buchanan TW, Preston SD. Stress leads to prosocial action in immediate need situations. Front Behav Neurosci. 2014;8:5.  

17. Taylor S., Master SL. Social Responses to Stress: The Tend-and-Befriend Model. In: Contrada R., Baum A, editors. The Handbook of Stress Science. New York: Springer; 2011. p. 101–7.  

18. Pavey L, Greitemeyer T, Sparks P. Highlighting relatedness promotes prosocial motives and behavior. Personal Soc Psychol Bull. 2011;37(7):905–17.  

19. Weinstein N, Ryan RM. When Helping Helps: Autonomous Motivation for Prosocial Behavior and Its Influence on Well-Being for the Helper and Recipient. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010;98(2):222–44.  

20. Konrath S, Fuhrel-Forbis A, Lou A, Brown S. Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Heal Psychol. 2012;31(1):87–96.  

21. Stallman HM, Ohan JL, Chiera B. The role of social support, being present and self-kindness in university student well-being. Br J Guid Couns. 2018;46(4):365–74.  

22. Zeng X, Chiu CPK, Wang R, Oei TPS, Leung FYK. The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: A meta-analytic review. Front Psychol. 2015;6(NOV):1693.  

23. Galante J, Galante I, Bekkers MJ, Gallacher J. Effect of kindness-based meditation on health and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2014;82(6):1101–14.  

24. Luberto CM, Shinday N, Song R, Philpotts LL, Park ER, Fricchione GL, et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness (N Y). 2018;9(3):708–24.  

25. Galante J, Bekkers MJ, Mitchell C, Gallacher J. Loving-Kindness Meditation Effects on Well-Being and Altruism: A Mixed-Methods Online RCT. Appl Psychol Heal Well-Being. 2016;8(3):322–50.  

26. Grant AM, Gino F. A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010;98(6):946–55.  

27. Ma LK, Tunney RJ, Ferguson E. Does gratitude enhance prosociality?: A meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2017;143(6):601–35.  

28. Rowland L. Kindness – society’s golden chain? [Internet]. The Psychologist. 2018 [cited 2020 May 1]. Available from: 

29. Binfet J-T. Not-so random acts of kindness : A guide to intentional kindness in the classroom. Int J Emot Educ. 2015;7(2):35–48.  

30. Campling P. Reforming the culture of healthcare: the case for intelligent kindness. BJPsych Bull. 2015;39(1):1–5.  

Kindness and mental health

We found that 63% of UK adults agree that when other people are kind, it has a positive impact on their mental health, and the same proportion agree that being kind to others positively affects their mental health.
Learn more about kindness and mental health
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