Vitality

Random Acts Of Kindness Raise Dopamine Levels And Boost Your Mood

Donation jar
Performing acts of kindness, such as picking up litter or buying a friend coffee, can give you a mood boost. Pixabay, Public Domain

If you’re late for work, cut your hair too short, or accidentally chip your tooth during dinner, chances are you’re feeling down. Although it’s easy to wallow in self-pity and treat yourself to a shopping spree, this will not make you feel better. Rather, researchers at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., suggest practicing random acts of kindness to boost your mood and overall well-being rather than “retail therapy.”

“I think this is important because people are often encouraged to ‘treat themselves’ as a way to feel good, yet our findings suggest that the best way to feel happy is to treat someone else instead," Dr. Katherine Nelson, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee told The Huffington Post.

In a six-week study involving nearly 500 participants, Nelson and her colleagues sought to compare how prosocial behavior — practicing acts of kindness for others or the world — compares to self-oriented behavior, or doing acts of kindness for yourself. Volunteers were divided into four groups: the first group was asked to complete acts of kindness to improve the world, such as picking up litter; the second group performed acts of kindness for other people, such as buying a friend a cup of coffee or helping a family member cook dinner; the third group performed acts of kindness to themselves, like exercising more or taking a day off from work; and lastly, the fourth group did nothing out of their ordinary activities.

Prior to the experiment and six weeks after, the participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their psychological, emotional, and social well-being. They were also required to self-report their positive and negative emotions weekly during the study.

The findings revealed participants who performed acts of kindness, whether for the world or for others, were more likely to report feeling happy or to experience improvement in their mood than were the control group and those who were kind to themselves. In fact, those who treated themselves did not see any improvement in well-being or positive emotions.

“People could feel greater positive emotions, and in turn psychological health, because by being kind to others, they are nurturing social relationships, or they could feel greater pride in themselves for doing a good deed," said Nelson, about the results.

Performing random acts of kindness helps boost your psychological health by activating the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, often referred to as a “ helper's high.” This is based on the theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that mimic a morphine high. Simply being motivated by generosity can benefit you as much as it does those receiving your help.

A similar study published in Clinical Psychological Science found when we help others, we can also help ourselves. A cohort of people reported helping others boosted their daily well-being. A greater number of selfless acts was linked to higher levels of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health. The participants’ helping behavior also influenced how they responded to stress. Helping others seemed to buffer the negative effects of stress on well-being.

These studies provide insight to how doctors can treat people with depression or who suffer from chronic stress. Random acts of kindness can help patients shift the focus away from themselves and onto others. Doing good deeds can prevent negative feelings from manifesting themselves in patients.

So, does this mean you shouldn't treat yourself?

No. You’re allowed to engage in some shameless self-indulgence once in a while, but perhaps the most satisfying gift to yourself is to help others.

Source: Nelson KS, Layous K, Cole SW et al. Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing. Emotion. 2016.  

Loading...