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The Butterfly Effect of Kindness

Updated: May 8

Do you believe in serendipity or are you in the other camp - the one that believes everything happens for a reason? That, good or bad, the events in our life are not random, that there is an underlying order to life that determines how everything turns out?

Imagine a meeting gets cancelled and you have some time to kill before your next one. You decide to grab a coffee where you bump into an old friend. You chat for a bit and share that you're writing a book. Your friend tells you he works for a publishing company. He introduces you to the editor who eventually accepts your book.

What if your meeting hadn't been cancelled, or you hadn't decided to stop at that particular coffee shop or you didn't run into your old friend? Those seemingly inconsequential choices ended up being quite significant. You might not have met the publisher who put your book into print.

This is a real-world example of the "butterfly effect," a mathematical construct that rests on the notion that the world is so deeply interconnected that one small occurrence can influence a much larger complex system. The effect is named after an allegory for chaos theory in that a small butterfly flapping its wings in Akron, Ohio could, hypothetically, cause a typhoon in Europe. Or it could not.

The butterfly effect was first named by meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz. Lorenz was searching for ways to accurately predict the weather. He discovered that small changes in initial conditions could lead to drastically different effects.

However, just as it would be almost impossible to predict that deciding to grab a coffee would result in getting your book published, the mind-boggling part of the butterfly effect is that it’s virtually impossible to predict the impact of small things.

Like kindness. A small act of kindness can set off a chain of events that we may never know. Studies show how receiving an act of kindness incentivizes us to generate kind acts for others. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard provide the first scientific evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network.

One person’s generosity will spread to three people. Those three people will each pay forward the kind act to three others, benefiting nine in all. Those nine will continue to multiply the kindness.

From an evolutionary perspective our brains are wired to operate better when we demonstrate social support to others than negative or even neutral attitudes toward others. A recent study used fMRI brain imaging to explore the benefits of showing kindness to others and found 3 specific neurobiological benefits:

1. Reduced stress response

2. Increased activity in reward and pleasure center

3. Increased activity in the septal area (feelings of social connectedness)

For this study, participants were asked about various scenarios in which they either gave or received social support. For example, having "someone to lean on" or "looking for ways to cheer people up" when they were feeling down. As you might expect, both giving and receiving social support correlated to lower reported negative psychosocial outcomes. However, they found that giving social support ultimately had greater brain benefits than receiving.

Another study conducted at Oxford and published on analyzed the impact of kindness in four different categories:

Familiars: Acts of kindness were carried out on family and close friends

Strangers: Acts of kindness were carried out on strangers

Self/Novel: Acts of kindness were carried out for oneself doing something atypical

Observers: Acts of kindness were not carried out personally, but participants were required to observe other people carrying out acts of kindness

Participants were asked to perform small acts of kindness for seven days - anything from buying someone a cup of coffee to dropping a card in the mail or simply spending time. Then they compared their happiness, life satisfaction, compassion, trust, positivity, and human connection levels before and after. They found that the kindness intervention had a positive effect on every single category tested.

They also found that the increase in happiness was dependent on the number of acts completed — that is, the more acts of kindness, the happier they were.

"It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world are the tiny things"
– Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Practchett

Kindness in the Workplace

In a more recent 2017 study, researchers extended this body of work and conducted a functional analysis of how kindness reinforces kind behavior in the workplace. Employees were randomly assigned to be Givers, Receivers, and Controls. Givers practiced 5 acts of kindness for a personalized list of Receivers over 4 weeks.

They found that Givers and Receivers show increased feelings of well-being in both the short-term (e.g., on weekly measures of competence and autonomy) and the long-term (e.g., Receivers became happier after 2 months, and Givers became less depressed and more satisfied with their lives and jobs). Maybe more importantly, Givers’ prosocial acts inspired others to act. Receivers paid their acts of kindness forward with 278% more prosocial behaviors than the control group.

The bottom line: The world is full of Givers and Takers. The Takers eat better but the Givers sleep better. Which will you be today?



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John Dunia
John Dunia

Excellent, Melissa. I wish there was a greater push to make kindness cool. Negativity gets much more "press," but kindness can only build a better world. Why would anyone not want that? (Perhaps that answer is in a future article)

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