Is Kindness Contagious?

We’ve all heard the concept of paying it forward – where one person performs a random act of kindness, which inspires the recipient to do the same. But is kindness truly contagious?

Illustration of statistic Canadians volunteered total of 1.96 billion hours in one year

A growing body of scientific evidence seems to suggest this is the case. When we are the recipient of, or a witness to, a kind act, we feel warm and fuzzy inside. Essentially, this pleasant feeling makes us want to then do something kind for others.

Results of a ground-breaking study by researchers at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University published in the British Medical Journal in 2008 found that people can ‘catch’ emotional states they observe in others by ‘emotional contagion.’ The benefits of paying it forward, according to the researchers, spreads to at least three degrees of separation.

Another study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2015 gives this warm and fuzzy feeling a name: moral elevation. During the study, 104 college students were shown videos of acts of compassion and kindness, which triggered an increase in heart rate and brain activity associated with empathy. Hence, the term “moral elevation”.

Kindness elevates oxytocin levels, a hormone involved in empathy, compassion and kind behaviour, according to author and speaker Dr. David Hamilton. Genetically speaking, he writes that: “We are not wired to be selfish. We are wired to be kind.”

In other words, by building a person’s empathy and perspective, it can inspire them to do the same for others. And while there’s research to support this, there’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence.

When Dareen Fatimah first came to Canada with her husband and son – with no family connections or job prospects – she was overwhelmed. She didn’t know how to find housing, employment or even warm clothing in a country that was completely unfamiliar to her. The family had just spent 10 days walking around Toronto in the frigid cold, trying to find a place to live.

One day, in an effort to warm up, the family ducked into a school. It was then that a grey-haired woman approached with a smile and asked if they needed help. It turned out she was a settlement worker with United Way-supported CultureLink, an agency that helps newcomers settle into their new life in Canada.

“She recommended so many free services [for new Canadians] that we didn’t know existed – it was like winning the lottery,” says Fatimah. Growing up in Lebanon and moving to Dubai as a young adult, she had never met anyone who was willing to help her for nothing in return. “I spent so many nights trying to understand if this is fraud or if this is real,” she says.

Fatimah arrived in Canada in March; by June she was volunteering with CultureLink, eventually finding employment as a settlement worker and program co-ordinator. “I still feel I owe this to every single newcomer that comes across my way, whether I’m at the subway or at the supermarket or at work. This is like a gift that I was given, and I have to pass it on to someone else.”

Dionne Quintyn moved to the Regent Park community in Toronto when she was five years old. Her mom – a hard-working Guyanese woman who moved to Canada in 1995 – worked in Richmond Hill, which meant her children would come home from school to an empty house. So, she enrolled Quintyn and her brother in the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs.

The afterschool club came with a bonus: the United Way-funded Safewalk Home Program. “That program was my mom’s life and saviour. By the time we got home at seven, she was home and dinner was ready,” says Quintyn.

Now, as a young adult, Quintyn is a representative on the provincial youth council for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada and past president of the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs youth council. Aside from continuing to volunteer, she earned an advanced diploma in child and youth work and is now in the degree program at Humber College so she can provide counselling services for youth transitioning out of the justice system.

“I feel like it’s molded me into somebody who wants to help others because I was helped throughout my whole life through the Boys and Girls Clubs. Sometimes I feel like it’s my calling,” she says. “I like the fact I can help somebody else.”

Perhaps Quintyn sums up the concept of moral elevation best: “I do it because it’s fun, and I enjoy giving people the help they need so they can go out and help someone else.”

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