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We’ve all heard, likely starting at a young age, that one of the secrets to happiness in this life is to do good for those around us. Experts say that there is actually truth to that statement. However, are all ‘acts of kindness’ created equal?

How does happiness work to benefit us in life? As English author G.K. Chesterton once said, “Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.” It’s an experience that is unique for each and every person. Therefore, defining the experience is incredibly challenging. However, there are some basic scientific explanations for what happens – the chemical reactions that occur within our brains when we experience joy or happiness.

Emotions like stress and happiness are each associated with a number of neurochemicals within the brain. These chemicals work to transfer data and trigger the activation of specific areas of the brain.  For example, the neurochemical ‘dopamine’ is responsible for your feelings of joy from achieving a goal, triggering the reward center of the brain, while ‘oxytocin’ is known as the ‘bonding hormone’ triggering feelings of love and intimacy. Each experience in our lives will, in turn, trigger these chemicals in a unique way.

Therefore, it stands to reason that different experiences in our lives can trigger these chemicals in different ways. While two different situations may both bring you happiness, the way that these chemicals react can lead to different reactions or responses.

In an effort to understand the way that different types of kindness can impact our happiness, a team of researchers decided to study which forms of kindness will have the greatest benefits. They worked with a study group of 683 adults selected from over two dozen countries. Each participant was asked to complete at least one act of kindness every day for a week. However, the team was divided into 4 different groups and gave each group slightly more specific instructions in this task. The groups were as follows:

Group One – Direct their kindness towards the people they are close to like friends and family

Group Two – Direct their kindness towards acquaintances and other people they don’t know as well

Group Three – Engage in self-kindness, practicing self-care in their own lives

Group Four – Rather than engaging in acts of kindness themselves, they were asked to focus their attention on identifying the acts of kindness carried out by others

They then collected information about the impact of each of these forms of kindness, comparing them to a fifth control group who went about their lives as per usual with no changes. The conclusion may be surprising. While there was a clear increase in happiness between those who engaged in acts of kindness as opposed to those in the control group, the level of happiness triggered by each type of kindness was found to be the same. The group bringing happiness to their closest friends and family experienced the same boost in happiness as the group observing the kindness of others.

This message is important, as it provides us with a clear approach to improve our own personal happiness and well-being. If you find yourself feeling down or struggling in any way, make kindness a priority. It will help to introduce happiness into both your life as well as the lives of others.

Image via Healing Gate