Photo Credit Jan Garrison
The science behind being kind
April 15, 2019

Want to feel better? Make someone else’s day.

Nick Epley, a professor in the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and author of “Mindwise,” spoke at an all-school meeting at Culver last week about the power of social relationships and revealed how the results of Culver’s participation in a gratitude experience turned out.

The power of positive social relationships can actually lengthen a person’s life, he told the students, faculty and staff. But feeling isolated or alone can be crushing – mentally and physically. Results show that feeling alone can cause more physical damage than smoking, he said.

He added that money can buy happiness – to a certain extent. It is better than standing in a breadline, but the positive impact begins to diminish after income levels reach $75,000. Research shows “there’s not much increase” beyond that level, he explained.

The best way to feel better is simply “to be kind” to each other, he explained. “But most people have not gotten the memo.”

Such things such as performing random acts of kindness and talking with a stranger on a train or plane makes both people involved feel better. The interesting part, he added, is that the people who initiate the exchange seriously underestimate the positive impact it has on the recipients.

In an experiment with Chicago area commuters in November, his group offered $5 Starbucks gift cards to people if they agreed to talk with a stranger on their train ride to work. Even when agreeing to do so, the people imagined they would feel worse after doing it. “People will do anything for a $5 gift card,” he added.

But after their commute, the volunteers filled out survey cards saying they felt better – the exact opposite of their initial assessment. And the people they talked with also felt better after the exchange. Epley said it’s not surprising since people do feel better after creating social connections. But the volunteers seriously “undervalued” how much better the other people felt.

Another experiment involved random acts of kindness. People were offered coupons for a free hot chocolate while they were at the ice skating ribbon in Grant Park.. They were then offered the chance to have that hot chocolate given to a stranger instead. All but three people agreed to give their drinks to strangers. The three who didn’t gave their coupons to their girlfriends, Epley said.

Researchers found the people giving their hot chocolate away felt better because they knew it would make someone else happy. But, again, they underestimated how good it made the recipients feel.

And most experiments show that to be true, Epley said. In every instance, not only does the person who takes the positive social step feel better, but the recipient feels better as well. In fact, the person who generates the conversation, gives the compliment, or does the random act of kindness usually undervalues the positive emotions of the recipient.

“It’s a meaningful gap,” he explained, adding if people were more aware of that fact, they may be more prone to do it.

Even asking others for help makes them feel better. Instead of taking a selfie, asking someone to take a photo of you in front of monument is a “pro-social event.” Most people are happy to do it and it makes them feel better because they have helped someone. So don’t be afraid to ask, he said.

Writing a letter of gratitude is a great way to make yourself and the recipient feel better, Epley added, and he used Culver as an example. His research group asked the students, faculty, and staff to write letters or send emails of gratitude to someone.

A total of 218 students and 20 faculty and staff participated. Their letters or emails went to family members, friends and others. The breakdown shadowed the make-up of the school with 95 girls/women and 133 boys/men participating. The group receiving the largest number of letters/emails were mothers.

After they were sent, the researchers contacted the recipients to see how they felt about receiving the notes. They received feedback from 65 percent of the recipients. Their first emotion was surprise to have received the note, but their positive emotions at receiving them “were at the top of the ceiling.” In every area that was measured, the senders again underestimated how the recipients would feel.

Culver’s response falls right in line with other studies, he said. People seriously undervalue how a pro-social move like talking to a stranger on the commute to work, paying someone a compliment, giving them a hot chocolate, or writing a note of gratitude will make someone feel.

And it makes you feel better, too.

Share This:
Posted in Academic Alumni Culver Academies Events Faculty In The News Leadership Parents Spiritual Life Student Life
Related Stories