The power of counting kindness

Dark haired woman with eyes closed, smiling, with her hands on her heart.
image: iStock / Getty

Seventy one female students were once asked to count how often they were kind.

Now, they weren’t asked to be kind on purpose. In fact, they weren’t asked to be any different at all from their normal selves. They were simply asked to make a note of those times when their behaviour was kind.

So if she paid someone a kind compliment, the student would note it down in her diary, including specifically what she’d said and the response of the person. If she bought a gift for someone, she would note the kind act as well as what the gift was. They did this each day for a week.

At the beginning of the week and then again at the end, their happiness scores were measured and compared with a control group of 48 randomly selected female students.

All 71 of them had become happier than they were at the start of the week, and happier than the control group.

Now, several studies have shown that being kind makes us happier. That’s well known now. But those studies typically ask people to go out and be kind on purpose. 

For example, they might ask people to do a set number of acts of kindness over a day or a week and their happiness is measured before and after. 

Or they might give people some money and invite them to either spend it on others or spend it on themselves, as scientists at the University of British Columbia did when they gave 632 people either $5 or $20 at the start of the day. They found that those who spent the money on others were happier at the end of the day than those who had spent it on themselves.

But this was different. The psychologists leading this study asked the women to be themselves, but just to observe when, in being themselves, it happened that they said or did something kind.

It was an observational study of themselves.

And it turned out that noticing when you’re kind actually makes you happier.

But there was something else within the results that generated some interest in the study. Twenty-one of the women (about a third) became not just happier, but much happier. Significantly so.

What happened there?

Well, a few things.

First, the researchers found that those women had done more acts of kindness on average than the rest. Second, they found that those women also felt more grateful about the experience of being kind and counting their kindness.

I would add a third factor, which wasn’t measured in the study, but which I’ve come across in my observations and research for writing (so far) 3 books covering studies on kindness and one book on self esteem.

Consider what would go through your mind as you fill out a diary with all your kindnesses. You can’t fail to notice the number of times you bring smiles to people’s faces and the momentary connection you feel as people smile and some express gratitude. 

You’re also forced to consider that you are a much nicer person than you thought you were, and that you make more of a difference in people’s lives than you thought you did.

Given these experiences, for those one third of the women, the act of counting their kindnesses probably lifted their self esteem, their core opinion of themselves and their perception of their own worth. 

This, I think, probably also added to the significant increase in happiness they felt.

Why not try it out for yourself, even if just for a week. 

Just keep a note as best you can of the things you say or do that are kind. Note what they are and even the responses of the people you help.

See how you get on.

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  1. Cindy Sym on September 17, 2022 at 1:16 am

    Beautiful advice. Thankyou, David.

  2. Lynette on September 22, 2022 at 8:30 am

    I feel happier just reading your words of wisdom and find myself smiling as I read and imagine the events you describe
    I consider myself an empath and often feel emotional when I observe an act of kindness, what’s that about ‍♀️

    • David Hamilton on September 22, 2022 at 8:55 am

      Aw, thanks Lynette. I find myself smiling at your comment. 🙂 I’d say that feeling emotional when you observe an act of kindness is partly because you have high empathy and also that the importance of kindness resonates with you deeply. I’m quite similar and also find that I deeply enjoy seeing people benefit from help.

  3. Ursula Mcintosh on September 27, 2022 at 5:48 am

    Kindness is something we create from within, with genuine love for self, an self respect. Love is a act of true beauty. Even when we feel that some don’t need are kindness an understanding. I have been single but married for a long time. An we met as kid’s, the thing’s we went through an the act of kindness from other’s an then having some compassion towards one another for everything we had went through as kid’s. Gave insight on life in general, an how important it is to be kind.

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