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The key to happier kids? Acts of kindness, study says

Virtue may be its own reward, but it turns out it's also got an added bonus for preadolescents. A new study of Canadian kids has found that performing acts of kindness not only boosts their happiness and well-being, it also makes them more popular.

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of education, and co-author Kristin Layous of the University of California, Riverside, examined whether or not committing kind acts would increase kids' well-being. More than 400 children aged 9 to 12, recruited from 19 classrooms in Vancouver, were divided into two groups.

Kids in the first group were told to perform three acts of kindness each week for four weeks. That could mean hugging mom when she was stressed or vacuuming the floor at home.

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Children in the second group were instructed to visit three pleasant places each week for the same amount of time, be it a baseball diamond or their grandparent's house.

Before and after the study period, the students reported their life satisfaction, happiness and positive affect. They were also given a list of their classmates, who were fellow participants, and asked to circle other students who they "would like to be in school activities with." The kids were told they could circle as few or as many other kids as they liked.

Both groups said they were happier after the four weeks, but kids who performed acts of kindness selected more kids to work on after-school activities with, gaining an average of 1.5 friends.

"Our study demonstrates that doing good for others benefits the givers, earning them not only improved well-being but also popularity," the authors wrote in the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We always predict that being happier and doing good things for other people are going to also improve your social relationships, but it was really nice to find that in a concrete way," Layous said in a telephone interview.

The authors also pointed out that boosting peer acceptance not only raises kids' sense of well-being, it also reduces the likelihood of bullying.

"We're trying to make children happier, which would in turn make them less likely to act out against peers," Layous said. And classmates also wanted to do activities with children who performed acts of kindness, which likely also reduces their chances of being bullied.

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As well, classrooms in which every kid is liked just as much as their peers have better average mental health than classrooms in which there are favourite children and marginalized kids.

Given the results of the study and what is already known about the benefits of peer acceptance, the authors suggest kids be encouraged to regularly help others.

"Teachers and interventionists can build on our work by introducing intentional pro-social activities into classrooms and recommending that such activities be performed regularly and purposefully," they wrote.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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