As the holidays call for good will toward men, new research indicates that kids who are kinder are also happier and more popular. This finding suggests that simple and brief acts of kindness might help reduce bullying, the researchers say.
At the top of parents' wish lists is for their children to be happy, to be good and to be well-liked, and past research has suggested these goals may be not only compatible but complementary. The link between happiness and prosocial behavior such as kindness toward others apparently goes both ways: Not only do happy people often do good for others, but being more prosocial increases people's sense of well-being.
Based on this prior research, scientists carried out what they say was the first long-term experiment analyzing kindness in pre-teens. The investigators followed more than 400 "tweens" – kids age 9 to 12 – attending Vancouver, Canada, elementary schools.
The students were randomly assigned to two groups. Half the students were asked by teachers to keep track of pleasant places they visited, such as playgrounds, baseball diamonds, shopping centers or a grandparent's house. The other students were asked to perform acts of kindness, such as sharing their lunch or giving their mom a hug when she felt stressed by her job.
"We gave them examples of acts of kindness, but we left it up to the kids to decide what was a kind act," said researcher Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The students were asked to report how happy they were and identify classmates they would like to work with in school activities. After four weeks, both groups said they were happier, but the kids who had performed acts of kindness reported experiencing greater acceptance from their peers – they were chosen most often by other students as children the other students wanted to work with. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
"You can do this very simple intervention that not only increases happiness but makes kids like each other more in the classroom," Schonert-Reichl told LiveScience.
According to Schonert-Reichl, bullying often increases in grades 4 and 5. By asking students to briefly and regularly act kindly to those around them, "hopefully we can get kids to get along in the classroom and reduce instances of the bullying and teasing that we see, especially around this age group," Schonert-Reichl said.
"One thing we haven't done yet that I think would be fascinating would be to see what kind acts kids in this age group do," she added. "Another would be seeing if this actually can be an intervention for bullying — will it decrease bullying in the classroom? And we did this in classrooms; what happens if you did it on the whole school level?"
The scientists detailed their findings online Dec. 26 in the journal PLoS ONE.