Scientists Find That Daily ‘Micro Acts’ of Kindness Increase Joy, Well-Being

happy woman

You buy a cup of coffee for a man holding open the door at a 7-Eleven, seeking nourishment of any kind, but mostly wanting money.

You reach into your wallet to drop a few dollars into a collection bin for someone you don’t know whom a poster says needs a kidney transplant.

You help an elderly neighbor with her grocery bags as you both climb three flights of stairs to your apartments.

Who benefits from your little acts of kindness? Obviously, the person on the receiving end. But you, the giver, do, too, research shows.

An analysis of a study called the BIG JOY Project finds that people who commit daily “micro-acts” of joy experience about a 25% increase in emotional well-being over the course of a week. 

“We're really excited,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a BIG JOY project leader and science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, about the project’s findings so far. “There are statistically significant, measurable changes [including] greater well-being, better coping, less stress, more satisfaction with relationships,” she told NPR.

The BIG JOY Project is a collaboration between the Greater Good Science Center and other research institutions. Researchers say they have the preliminary results of their study from more than 70,000 participants in over 200 countries.

The micro-acts of kindness are inspired by the documentary Mission: JOY: Finding Happiness in Troubled Times  about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

Participants in the project take an online survey about their emotions, stress and social tendencies. Then for seven consecutive days, they engage in small, happiness-boosting activities, what the researchers call “micro-acts” of joy. 

Each day, people answer questions about what they did and how they felt afterward. At the end of the week, they take another survey to gauge how their emotions and sense of well-being have changed.

When people intentionally plan out a daily micro-act, it may help them feel as if they have a bit of control over their emotions, researcher Elissa Epel, a BIG JOY collaborator and a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, says.

Acts of Kindness Can Alleviate Depression and Anxiety

Other studies echo the BIG JOY findings.

Researchers at the University of Ohio had people with elevated symptoms of depression or anxiety assigned to engage in acts of kindness, join in social activities, or participate in a brief intervention based on cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Acts of kindness may more effectively improve social connection and related dimensions of well-being than prevailing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques,” the authors of the study concluded.

In reporting the University of Ohio study on its website, the American Psychiatric Association said: “Everyday simple acts of kindness can contribute to boosting your mood, reducing stress and possibly alleviating symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, what might seem like a small kind gesture could have a greater impact than you might think.”

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After working as an editor on the foreign desk of the Washington Post (2001-2006), Richard Pretorius went out to explore the bigger world he had felt privileged to edit stories about. The first stop was Abu Dhabi and the launching of the National newspaper (2008-2013), then Hong Kong and the South China Morning Post (2013-2015) during a remarkable time of pro-democracy protests and 40,000 or so restaurants to choose from.

In 2015, he became a remote worker, editing stories for the London/Tunis based Arab Weekly (2015-2020). He was in Spain when COVID-19 clobbered Madrid in March/April 2020, and the newspaper shut down. He felt emotionally saved during those dark days of around-the-clock wailing ambulances and social distancing by the infectious spirit of the Spanish people and we-are-all-in-this-together nightly balcony shows.

He edited a book on the history of human rights groups in Iran, did a blog for an Aussie website focusing on the Biden-Trump 2020 presidential race, and said “yes” to just about any other freelance work.

In July 2021, he returned to the United States, working as an editor for Zenger News Service and then the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He joined Wealth of Geeks as a writer/editor in October 2023. Prior to catching the “international bug,” he had been the editorial page editor of three newspapers and a news editor/columnist in the Washington bureau of Scripps Howard.