You know that “feel-good” sensation when you perform an act of kindness or help someone in need? That internal warmth that leaves you smiling for the rest of the day? According to Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, that sensation is a result of human evolution, and it’s essential to living in a communal society. 

Humans have evolved into caregiving mammals who help others in need, and their brains release oxytocin and dopamine—neurohormones associated with creating social bonds that signal a sense of reward, enjoyment, and benefit. The motivation to help others stems from the instinct to protect our offspring.

“You don’t even have to observe the recipient of the kindness or protection to feel good,” says Preston. “When people donate to disaster relief funds or give blood, their brain anticipates feeling good, and it responds accordingly.”

The anticipation of feeling good and subsequent brain response (the release of oxytocin and dopamine) results from a feedback loop between kindness and good feelings in which one continues to reinforce the other. Research has proven the existence of this feedback loop to be true time and time again, Preston says.


The Altruism Argument

This feedback loop raises the question: Do we ever really perform an act of kindness out of pure altruism? It’s a complicated question, and one that Preston ponders often. It was of such interest to Preston that she wrote the book The Altruistic Urge (Columbia University Press, 2022), which explores how and why some humans perform extraordinary acts of selflessness, even when their own life is on the line.

Preston, who has expertise in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, argues that the answer to “is altruism a real thing?” is much more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Our brains have developed over time to be highly motivated to help others. Even if we don’t know the person we’re offering kindness or help to, it is baked into our neural mechanisms to offer a hand to those who are vulnerable or in distress. The altruistic urge kicks in when an imminent, high-risk situation is present, like when your friend steps into traffic or your spouse is about to fall off a ladder while cleaning the gutters.

When the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response—is activated, “the urge to respond doesn’t need to be conscious; we just do it,” says Preston. “We don’t consider the other options or try to make the ‘rational’ decision.”

In most situations, though, a decision-making process happens in the prefrontal cortex before we spring into action and help someone in need.

For example, when you decide you want to donate to a charity, you select which charity to donate to, when to donate, and how much you want to give. Like in a philosophical thought experiment, the protagonist must consider if they have enough time to untie the person from the railroad track before the train comes or if they’re a good enough swimmer to save the man from drowning.

“The brain is good at making predictions about an outcome because that process is based in our motor system, which is an adaptive system,” Preston explains. “It keeps us from rushing into a situation if it’s ill-advised. We might not want to help if we’re getting in too far over our head.”


Taking a Step Back

We humans often become wrapped up in everyday life and its stressors, from work and school to finances and current events. 

We might make time to share kind words with those we care about or perform an act of service for someone in need, like sending a friend a birthday card or participating in a food drive during the holiday season. It’s just as important—now more than ever, Preston says—to step out of our daily grind and think about the communities in which we live.

World Kindness Day is Sunday, November 13, 2022. It offers an opportunity to consider the world and how we want to participate in it, according to Preston.

“At funerals, friends and family of the lost loved one offer wonderful praise, and you might think, ‘what would I want someone to say about me at my funeral? Am I living the life that warrants the legacy I want to have?’ They’re deep questions,” she says. “World Kindness Day reminds us to think about the kind of mark we want to make on those around us.” 

Kindness doesn’t have to stop at humans. On World Kindness Day, we can also consider how we participate in consumerism and the impact of our waste on the environment.

“The planet and its animals are part of our larger system, and they deserve our kindness as well,” says Preston. “On World Kindness Day and for the rest of our lives, it’s vital to think about how we can make a positive difference in the lives of those around us. And being kind is one of the most powerful tools.”


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Illustration by Aimee Andrion