shame photo


If doing “bad” deeds leads to feelings of shame, it makes sense that doing “good” deeds would probably make us feel better about ourselves. The claim that ‘helping makes you happy’ has long populated many a self-help manual, while performing ‘random acts of kindness’ has been touted as a sure-fire way of boosting your mood. But the question for us, and a team of researchers led by Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford is: Are these claims really true? That is, can doing good work in the opposite way doing bad does, and actually boost our mood?



In order to find out, the team conducted a systematic review of over 400 published papers that had investigated the relationship between kindness and happiness, and identified 21 studies that had explicitly put the claim to the test – that being kind to others makes us happier. They then conducted a meta-analysis, and statistically combined the results of these previous studies.


While performing acts of kindness was found to have a positive effect on happiness, the size of the effect is relatively modest – equivalent to less than one point on a 0-10 happiness scale (Curry et al., 2016).


Curry, concludes, “Humans are social animals. We are happy to help family, friends, colleagues, community members and even strangers under some conditions. This research suggests that people do indeed derive satisfaction from helping others. This is probably because we genuinely care about others’ welfare, and because random acts of kindness are a good way of making new friends, and kick-starting supportive social relationships” (Curry, 2016).


“Our review suggests that performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction” (Curry, 2016).


One factor Curry’s work did not take into account is just who we help. Curry does suggest, however, that targeted kindness rather than indiscriminate kindness may have a greater effect on happiness (Curry, 2016).


According to the work of Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and Harvard Business School, Massachusetts, USA, Curry’s suggestion is right.



Carrying out three studies of charitable donations – also called pro-social spending – Aknin and her team found that spending money on others or giving money to charity leads to the greatest happiness boost when giving fosters social connection (Aknin et al., 2016).


Likely, when out giving moves from anonymous to personal – such as a friend, relative, or social connection – it becomes tangible, and that makes us feel happier. The supposition of Aknin and her team is that it is possible that if we have a greater sense of happiness when giving involves making a social connection our positive emotions might even lead to more frequent and perhaps bigger donations – in a sort of snowball effect (Aknin et al., 2016).


“While additional factors other than social connection likely influence the happiness gained from pro-social spending our findings suggest that putting the social in pro-social is one way to transform good deeds into good feelings” (Aknin, 2016).


Aknin also notes that previous studies have demonstrated a positive effect on happiness of social interaction and taking part in voluntary work, and that these sorts of activities have the power to generate positive feelings that are both immediate and long-lasting (Aknin, 2016).



The takeaway is not only that doing good deeds makes us feel better – which shouldn’t surprise us – but that the more we do these things, the more we are motivated to continue doing them, which acts to ameliorate feelings of shame.