xmas3Reciprocity – mutual and cooperative exchange – is a key part of how relationships improve our wellbeing. At Christmas, we often focus on buying presents for others, but there are many ways to give to others.

In our own research we’ve heard about the value for wellbeing of having a role and giving back. In our Community Health Networks study we heard participants stress that relationships were not simply about receiving support, but also about the support they provided to others. These roles provided a positive sense of identity and wellbeing, as well as a sense of purpose and feeling of being useful towards others. Reciprocity was therefore key for wellbeing in people’s relationships.

Other studies claim that kindness is ‘contagious’. A study by Fowler and Christakis tested behaviour on a public goods game, finding that kindness tripled over the course of game play. “Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks” (1). Studies that test the impact of ‘counting kindness,’ ‘prosocial spending,’ and ‘acts of kindness’ interventions have shown that people who take part see improvements in subjective happiness, life satisfaction, positive affect and reductions in negative affect, such as loneliness and relationships (2). One study shows that activities such as these may protect against mental health conditions (3).

Case study – ‘I started to make a more active step towards ‘acts of kindness’ in everyday life’

Jessica CotneyAs someone who once experienced anxiety and agoraphobia, I found it difficult to engage with social activities. In the early stages, receiving social support from friends was a big help for me – I found that this is what got me out of the house and into a position where I was able to make more steps towards positive wellbeing. As my anxiety reduced and my confidence grew I became more and more able to reciprocate within my social circle. I became someone that offered a listening ear in return, invited people out when they were feeling low (or when they weren’t) and cooked them dinner on a wintery evening. This felt good – it further boosted my confidence but also strengthened my friendships. I now have a large circle of close friends and
we all support each other when we need it. Also, it just felt good to know that the smallest things can sometimes make someone’s day – this definitely brings a ‘helper’s high.’ Working in the field, I became aware that positive psychologists have in fact shown that engaging with ‘acts of kindness’ can boost our own wellbeing and so I started to make a more active step towards ‘acts of kindness’ in everyday life. I’ve tried larger ventures such as volunteering and practising ‘loving-kindness meditation’ but have also practised the smaller things such as holding doors open for people, baking someone a cake or offering to make them a cup of tea. All of these things have certainly, at times, boosted my mood and theirs – give it a try!

Jess Cotney, Researcher, The McPin Foundation

Practical tips

  • Offer a listening ear to a friend and accept their support to you as well. Reciprocity within supportive friendships can be important for sustaining these relationships
  • Ask a family member what food you can bring to a meal over Christmas to share the load of catering at this busy time – sharing food is a great way “to give”
  • Set yourself a new year’s resolution that involves a reciprocal exchange of kindness and consideration to others be that at work, at home or in your local community.

1 James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 10, March 9, 2010

2 Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361-375.

3 Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Positive activities as protective factors against mental health conditions. Journal of abnormal psychology123(1), 3.