Kindness: A Contagious Disease

Kindness: a contagious disease

By Rebecca Unger MD

kind ·ness


The quality of being friendly, generous and considerate*

 The signs and symptoms of this condition include an increased level of happiness, an increased sense of wellbeing, improved relationships and improved communication about concerns of relationships. Be careful! This is a very contagious condition. There may even be some inherited tendencies.

 Why does this matter? Because the science behind helping others--or “moral elevation”--supports that acts of kindness increase happiness and wellbeing.

  Taking part in acts of kindness results not only in psychosocial benefits, but also in actual positive physiologic changes.  This may be due to changes in brain function and circuitry. While committing acts of kindness, there is increased frontal cortex activity that creates neural pathways as well as an increased flow of mood elevating hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and endorphins.

  Perhaps even more surprising, consistent acts of kindness may result in increased health and longevity. Studies show that both the persons performing and receiving the acts of kindness benefit, although the pattern of benefits differ. There may be a decrease in blood pressure, less depression, less stress and even an increase in longevity in people who provide social support to others. That is effective medicine!

 What’s more, kindness is contagious. When people observe others performing acts of kindness they are often inspired to reach out and do something for others themselves. Even Thomas Jefferson in 1771 noted the phenomenon when he wrote to a colleague,“ When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also.”

 Infants and young children have an innate tendency towards kindness. Children generally enjoy helping others and it makes them happy to be kind. As children get older, their trusting instinct towards kindness is influenced by learned behaviors and cultural experiences. These group experiences influence behaviors of generosity and collaboration. Parental role modeling, as well as community and cultural experiences can continue to promote the instinct to be kind.

  Kindness and gratitude heal our world, one act at a time. How do we develop, promote and sustain this tendency in our children?

  1. Be kind to yourself. Be patient and compassionate with you and yourself. This will pave the way towards a happy life and help you be a good role model to your children.
  2. Be that role model. Express gratitude, model generosity, and help others who need support both publicly and anonymously. Help your children understand why and when you help others. Discuss opportunities to help others.
  3. Play games with your family and friends. Practice taking turns, being a good winner and a good loser in the laboratory of your home.
  4. Take it home! Help your children understand the value of taking part in chores to help around the house without being asked (set the table, take out garbage, organize a cabinet, weed the garden)
  5. Explore random Acts of Kindness (AoK’s!). Offer praise (be specific) for noticing these acts of kindness. Discuss with your family how it feels to offer and receive these AoK’s. Sometimes, but not always, it can be helpful to use a reward system**.
  6. Expend a small effort to show your appreciation for another person’s positive impact. This could be a phone call, a thank you note, or a random note (Yes…with a stamp!), or certainly another social media related message. Thoughtfulness goes a long way. Think about how it makes you feel to drop that letter in the mailbox.
  7. Be kind to your neighbors – shovel their sidewalk, rake their leaves, walk their dog, help with a garden, put on a neighborhood variety show, bring brownies to the new kids on the block, entertain with smiley face chalk drawings!
  8. Take the kind road. Support family members of all ages to choose compassionate and empathetic responses, even if it is not easy.
  9. Promote community service and charitable activities with your family. It will be a win! Win! Situation in so many ways.


*English Oxford Living Dictionary

** T.O.P. (Treat Other People) coupon circa 1995, designed by Emily and Joey’s mom (Dr Rebecca Unger).


   Brown, S, et al. Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. Psychological Science, July 2003. Vol 14 (4).  

   Gregoire, Caroline. Why kindness is contagious, according to science. Healthy Living. May 19, 2015.

   Miller, MC. In praise of gratitude. Harvard Health Publications. October, 2015.

   Piferi,R and Lawler, K. Social support and ambulatory blood pressure: an examination of both receiving and giving. J of Psychophysciology. December, 2006: 62 (2), 328-36.

   Piper, WT, Saslow, LR, Saturn, SR. Autonomic and prefrontal events during moral elevation. Biol Psychology. May 2015: 108, 51-55

   Seligman MEP, et al. "Empirical Validation of Interventions," American Psychologist (July–Aug. 2005): Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 410–21.

   Simon-Thomas, Emilana. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Is kindness really its own reward? June 1, 2008

Rebecca Unger MD

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