September 12, 2022

The Social Psychology of Kindness

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

In my last post I wrote about how the stress of animal care has led to workers leaving the profession, and how I had hoped a brief note of appreciation after my cat’s surgical procedure might be a small antidote to this stress.

I have been particularly attuned to front-facing workplace stress since my own stints as a server in a restaurant and working in retail during and shortly after college. I know what it is like to be yelled at by a stranger for something you didn’t do or can’t control, and how it feels when there is nothing you can do but smile even when that is the last thing you feel like doing, something called emotional labor.

I witnessed several incidents within a few weeks that reminded me of how both stress and kindness are emotionally contagious. It may seem like a bumper sticker cliché to practice random acts of kindness, but the science tells us that it makes us—and maybe the people around us healthier and feel good. More on that in a minute….

First incident: I was waiting in line to go through U.S. Customs at the Montreal airport during a layover when returning from Europe (Canadian cities and several others have preclearance operations, meaning you go through customs in a foreign country and do not have to when your flight arrives in the U.S.). The line was very long, and some people were starting to get anxious that they would miss their flights and started griping, first to the others in the line, and then to the harried workers who were trying to ferry passengers on soon-to-depart flights to the front of the line. This, of course, meant that the line barely moved.

This was not a surprise to me. I had been following the news all summer that international airports were facing major delays, thanks to an ongoing global labor shortage following the shut-down of travel during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I read about people waiting in lines for hours, only to miss their flights. After reading this, I had also been checking on how often the flights I was booked on were delayed, which turned out to be more often than not.

Like most people, I don’t like standing in line, had just gotten off a transcontinental flight, and was tired and hungry just like everyone around me. As the crowd’s impatience grew, people started talking to no one in particular. “This is the worst airport I’ve ever flown through!” “I’m never using this airport again!”

One man turned to me directly and said, “Wouldn’t you hire more people with lines this long? They obviously don’t know how to manage an airport.” I responded that there’s a global labor shortage, and airports around the world are facing the same or worse circumstances. (Jeez, haven’t you been watching the news? I thought to myself. What’s the matter with you? Why wouldn’t you pay attention to travel news before you travel? And why do you think complaining to me would help????)

I became annoyed with his and others’ annoyance. The stress virus had spread (and probably another one, too).

The second incident was similar: I was in line to checkout at the grocery store, which was about 5 people long. A woman sneered when she saw the line and asked the man behind me, “How long have you been waiting?” “About ten seconds,” he said. He had just gotten in line. She paced along the length of the line and then asked the person in the front of the line how long they had been waiting (about five minutes, they said. The line was moving quickly).

The woman went on about how she would never shop there again, and they obviously didn’t want to hire anyone because they want machines to take over. She has a job, and she would never quit, she said to no one in particular, although she would never work in a grocery store.

(I thought to myself, ummm, there’s a big banner outside saying they’re hiring and a table where they take applications by the door. How did you miss that? And how does anyone not know there’s a labor shortage????). I felt my heart rate rise and my stress level increase. As in the airport, the line was not as big of a stressor as others’ complaints about the line.

Just as stress can be contagious, so can kindness. I thought about this in the grocery line: how can I be kind, particularly to the checkout clerk who would soon be helping an upset customer? I did my best to be extra courteous, offered to help bag my groceries, and said that I noticed things had gotten busy, but I hoped she was having a good day. She said she preferred to be busy, that it made her shift go by more quickly.

I can’t be sure that my attempt at friendliness had much of an effect on her, but it made me feel better and helped neutralize the stress that I had absorbed from the other customer. There is ample research to suggest that kindness has mental and physical health benefits to the actor, maybe even more than the recipient. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology and a 2018 meta-analysis of kindness studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology both conclude that the performer of an act of kindness experiences a boost in well being. A 2020 meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin found similar results. As several others studies found, volunteering benefits the volunteer on preventative health measures; also, spending money on others had lowered blood pressure. One study even found the benefits of prosocial behavior could be linked with a healthier genetic expression that could lead to health advantages.

Research in the field of psychology of happiness is relatively new but a growing subdiscipline in social psychology. (Check out this site for more, including videos.) It would be interesting to see more research on the impact of kindness on third party observers. I recently observed a person giving some homemade desserts to people who barely know her at our local pool. Even though I wasn’t a recipient (which was fine, as I try and avoid sweets), I felt good just seeing other people receive an unexpected gift.

Being kind can be a tough choice, especially when we are frustrated, scared, or angry. But it can be the healthiest choice for you and those around you.


It has been demonstrated that kindness raises self-worth, fosters empathy and compassion, and elevates mood. It can lower stress levels by lowering blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. Balanced self-giving is associated with being healthy and living longer.

The social psychology of kindness delves into the study of how acts of kindness, empathy, and compassion impact individuals and society within the realm of social psychology.

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