The Science of Giving: Why One Act of Kindness is Usually Followed by AnotherNone By Jessica Cassity
Small acts of kindness are sometimes powerful enough to make major headlines. In fact, you've probably read about or watched a few of these stories unfold in the past month. Here's how it usually plays out: One person will do a good deed—such as placing a cup of coffee on reserve for a homeless person, or paying off a stranger's layaway balance at Kmart—then a trend will start, with more and more people getting in on the act. The result is a feel-good story for all. The benefactors are happy to have done a good deed and the recipients are pleased to have been given a small but meaningful helping hand.
However, the circle of generosity doesn't end there—in fact, it's exponentially bigger. Recipients of kindness generally want to keep paying it forward, says James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego. In fact, in one of Fowler's studies, he found that a single act of kindness typically inspired several more acts of generosity. The scientific name for this chain of altruism is “upstream reciprocity,” but you can think of it as a domino effect of warm and fuzzy feelings: If you drop a quarter into an expired parking meter, the recipient of that small act of generosity will be inspired to do a kind act for someone else, and on and on.
The Helper's High
So where do these good feelings come from? When you are kind to another person, your brain's pleasure and reward centers light up, as if you were the recipient of the good deed—not the giver, according to research from Emory University. This phenomenon has actually earned the nickname “helper's high” among psychologists who study generosity, and some researchers theorize that the sensation is also due to a release of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals associated with runner's high. It's no surprise then, that a 2010 Harvard Business School survey of happiness in 136 countries found that people who are altruistic—in this case, people who were generous financially, such as with charitable donations—were happiest overall.
Of course, part of why giving feels good is because we know we're lifting someone else's spirits . Receiving a gift, assistance, or even an encouraging smile activates the brain's reward center, a phenomenon that's hard to explain but easy to feel—just think back to the last time a stranger held th