Research into the effects random acts of kindness have on us, and on the people who are the recipients of them, has only recently started to become a subject of interest for psychologists.
Though altruism has long been a corner-stone of most major religions, the actual physiological effects of kindness – whether one simple act, or kindness on a sustained basis, such as volunteering – have only been documented recently.
Four years ago, researcher Carolyn Schwartz at the University of Massachusetts Medical School observed in studies that "the act of giving to someone else may have mental health benefits because the very nature of focusing outside the self counters the self-focused nature of anxiety or depression".
Schwartz said this often results in people's perception of their own lives improving, even when they have suffered personal loss, stress or illness. Altruistic acts, through anecdotal evidence, have been shown to have the same effect, although more short-lived.
"A random act of kindness entails a reality check," says Winnie de Roover, director of the Mental Health Information Centre in Stellenbosch.
"It temporarily breaks our self-focus, and helps to make our own problems and worries relative."
In South Africa, this reality check, when in the context of helping those less fortunate, often brings with it another benefit: an awareness of another way of life – both the giver's and the receiver's eyes are opened.
South of San Francisco, in the small town of Boulder Creek, you'll find the Institute of HeartMath. Here researchers have shown that kindness, including deep feelings of empathy with others as well as the giving and receiving of a simple compliment, have a calming effect on the heart's rhythm. This calming effect researchers have dubbed "coherence": the compartments of the heart beat steadily and in sync.
HeartMath researchers have found that it is in this state that the heart produces positive hormones that prevent ageing and make us feel more energetic.
"Kindness," says De Roover, "has a strong moral component – doing good is about living up to your values. This will almost always have positive implications for self-esteem."
Aside from the individual benefits of kindness, altruism is key to our spiritual journeys, whether it's branded as religious charity or cultivating good karma. And in the business world, kindness is being recognised as crucial to success, writes Stefan Einhorn, professor of molecular oncology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in his book, The Art of Being Kind.
No money required
Kindness does not have to involve money. In fact, all of the research into the effect of altruistic acts on us has shown that positive spin-offs are all the better when the gift is something closer to the human spirit. Pure kindness is exempt from money – it is a transaction where the currency is time, recognition or just plain love, with no obvious indication that the favour should be returned.
Kindness is easy
When you look at it like this, sharing kindness is really one of our most precious abilities, but also one of the easiest ones to use. Without it, our channel to the dignity of others is shut off, the doors to each other's humanity closed.
Altruism, whether random and spontaneous or sustained and purposeful, is the key to the survival of any civilised society. It is also the key to our own wellbeing, how we survive as individuals.
The famous psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that when all else is lost, kindness is the only thing that connects us to one another. It is the most powerful tool we have for directing the society in which we live.
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread," he said.
"They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
What do you think? Have you recently tried a bit of kindness, or have been on the receiving end of a random act of kindness? Tell us in the comment box below.