Science Says Random Acts Of Kindness Can Have A Huge Effect On Your Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago, I went into a restaurant bathroom and was surprised by what I saw taped to the mirror above the sink. Written in bold letters on a piece of paper was the simple message, "You are beautiful." I don't know whether an employee put it there or simply a kind patron, but seeing those words made me smile and feel like someone had thought of me, even though I knew plenty of other people had seen those same exact words. According to new research, random acts of kindness like this can benefit your health in multiple ways — and yes, I mean they can benefit the person who carries out these acts of kindness, not just the person on the receiving end of the gesture.

In a new study, published in the psychology journal Translational Issues in Psychological Science, researchers from York University found a connection between regularly showing kindness to others and improved well-being. According to ScienceDaily, over 600 people "who were mildly depressed" were asked to participate in something called "compassion training." Basically, the participants, who were, on average, in their mid-30s, were split into three groups, and were tasked with trying different exercises that might inspire compassion. In one group, per ScienceDaily, the volunteers did something called a "a loving-kindness meditation exercise," which involved meditating for about 10 minutes on phrases like "may you be happy," or "may you be safe." In a second group, the volunteers did an "acts of kindness exercise," and the third group simply journaled about some of their real-life relationships. Regardless of their assigned compassion exercise, every volunteer reported how they were feeling through an online platform every other day for three weeks.

After two months of these exercises, the researchers found that those who performed acts of kindness "showed the greatest reductions in depression and greatest increases in life satisfaction," according to ScienceDaily.

In other words, surprising a co-worker with coffee or sending flowers to your mom out of the blue doesn't just make the other person in the exchange happy; it benefits your happiness, too. In fact, according to Dartmouth College, random acts of kindness can not only boost your happiness, but can lower your stress levels as well: The institution says that people who are regularly kind have 23 percent less cortisol (aka a stress hormone) in their bodies compared to the average population. As Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside told Prevention, “When you’re kind to others, you feel good as a person—more moral, optimistic, and positive."

Now, what this kindness looks like can vary a lot from person to person. Sometimes, for example, it includes sharing your money with others: A Harvard Business School study looked at data from 136 countries and found that spending money to benefit other people can have a significantly positive effect on the spender's happiness — but this isn't something that only rich people can do or benefit from. According to the research, the benefits of charitable giving affect people with a variety of incomes. So even if you only have a couple of dollars to spare, grabbing a coffee for your friend or donating to a cause you believe in can make an impact.

If you want to start carrying out your own little acts of kindness here and there, one that I've personally grown to love is this: I use the Venmo app to urge my friends to treat themselves. Basically I pay them just a couple of dollars, totally unannounced, and I encourage them to use the money for a soothing face mask, a delicious pastry — whatever they want! It's a great surprise in the middle of the day to show your friend how much you love them.

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation also has an extensive list of ideas for how to incorporate kindness into your everyday life, which include things like donating your old towels to an animal shelter, writing a good review of your favorite small business online, and leaving quarters at the local laundromat for a lucky stranger. The best part about these suggestions is, if you're on a budget, many of the ideas require no money at all, so you can do as many as you'd like. After all, the world could use some extra kindness right about now.