Two people carrying groceries in brown bags

Photography by Rgstudio / iStock

Is paying it forward contagious?

The science is in. It turns out that kindness is a little like the common cold—get close, and you’ll catch it

Ever been at a coffee shop and found, when you got up to the counter, that a stranger had already paid for your coffee? Or been struggling with heavy bags, only to have a random person come over and offer to carry them for you? If you have, you know how a small act of kindness can create that warm-and-fuzzy feeling that inspires you to pay it forward. But is there evidence that experiencing kindness leads to more kindness?

What the experts say
It’s not just anecdotal evidence that backs up this theory—there’s science confirming that kindness can be infectious (in a good way). A study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego and Harvard University found that people can “catch” emotional states they observe in others—via a process called “emotional contagion.” Other studies have shown that there are measurable benefits of paying it forward, and that this goodness doesn’t affect just the people involved; it can spread to at least three degrees of separation.

Here’s how it works. According to Dr. David Hamilton, an author, speaker and kindness advocate, kindness elevates your body’s level of oxytocin, a hormone involved in empathy, compassion and the performance of kind acts. He writes that humans, genetically speaking, “are not wired to be selfish. We are wired to be kind.” That means that when you help build a person’s empathy and compassion, you’ll inspire them to do the same for others.

“I feel like it’s moulded me into somebody who wants to help others, because I was helped throughout my whole life by the Boys & Girls Clubs. Sometimes I feel like it’s my calling,”

The kindness ripple effect
Science may finally be able to explain the chemicals involved, but there have always been stories of people who have experienced kindness and then felt compelled to share it with others. Take Dionne Quintyn, for example. She moved to Toronto’s Regent Park community as a child. Her mom, who came to Canada from Guyana in 1995, worked in distant Richmond Hill, which meant Quintyn and her brother would come home from school to an empty house. So her mom enrolled both kids in an after-school club through the Toronto Kiwanis Boys & Girls Clubs, which offered the United Way–funded Safe Walk Home program. Quintyn calls it her “life and saviour.”

Now a young adult, Quintyn is a representative on the provincial youth council for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada. She also earned an advanced diploma in child and youth work, and is now in the degree program at Humber College so she can provide counselling services for youth transitioning out of the justice system.

“I feel like it’s moulded me into somebody who wants to help others, because I was helped throughout my whole life by the Boys & Girls Clubs. Sometimes I feel like it’s my calling,” she says. “I like the fact I can help somebody else.”

Giving back is a gift—for everyone involved
A chance encounter is all it took to start Dareen Fatimah down the kindness-spreading road. When she moved to Canada with her husband and son, they thought they would find a better life—but they had no family connections, no job prospects and no clue how to find housing, employment or even warm clothing in a completely unfamiliar country.

“This is like a gift that I was given, and I have to pass it on to someone else.”

Her family spent 10 days walking around Toronto in the frigid cold, trying to find housing, when they ducked into a public school to warm up. It was then that a grey-haired woman approached with a smile and asked if they needed help. It turned out she was a settlement worker with CultureLink, a United Way–supported agency that helps newcomers settle into their new lives in Canada.

“She recommended so many free services [for new Canadians] that we didn’t know existed—it was like winning the lottery,” says Fatimah. A few months later, after her family was settled, Fatimah decided it was time to give back and became a volunteer herself at CultureLink, eventually finding employment as a settlement worker and program coordinator.

“I still feel I owe this to every single newcomer that comes across my way, whether I’m at the subway or at the supermarket or at work,” she says. “This is like a gift that I was given, and I have to pass it on to someone else.”

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