THE BLOG

Why Does Kindness Go Viral?

04/15/2013 04:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

The headlines are ablaze with dirty laundry, from celebrity smackdowns to front-page predictions of economic apocalypse. Science channels trumpet environmental doom and gloom and reality shows focus on the bad luck and misery of their unfortunate "stars." We can't seem to get enough of this negativity.

Books like Kevin Rozario's "The Culture of Calamity" seek to account for our fixation with bad news and disaster while magazines like Psychology Today explain away our obsession by surmising that our brains are hard-wired toward bad news because our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to notice the negative things around them just to stay alive.

Could this mean that we can also be enthused by dramatic good news as well?

Perhaps that is why we've seen a spate of unabashed acts of kindness like the photo of a police officer providing a pair of boots to a homeless man in Times Square going viral.

More recently, NBC News Correspondent Ann Curry sent out a message via Twitter asking people to join her in performing 26 acts of kindness -- one for each of the children and teachers lost in the Newtown massacre. In no time #26Acts went viral, with Twitter and Facebook users paying it forward across the nation in an outpouring of empathy and caring.

What gives? What made those acts of kindness so compelling that we ditched our taste for tragedy to spread the good news?

A study by Wharton Professor of Marketing Jonah Berger shows it has everything to do with our level of emotional response when viewing subject matter. Anything that inspires an extreme emotion makes us more likely to reach out to others and share it. When the content is positive, it also helps us bond as humans.

Humans are, as Aristotle so famously put it, social animals. We need to belong to a group; a community -- and feel a part of the world. This is facilitated by social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and others. Instead of viewing things from a solitary perch in front of the TV, we're tweeting and posting news as fast as it happens -- sharing our anger, joy and opinions about events in real-time. These very real, human connections are fostering our sense of community on a local and global scale.

Research continues to bear this out: a study of 24,000 consumers in 16 countries found that the most connected people, social media-wise, were often the ones most likely to lend a hand to a friend, volunteer for a worthy cause, or offer up their seat on a bus. Sponsored by Let's Heal, a non-profit company that helps business brands find ways to be more "prosocial," the study showed that the basic human emotion of empathy drives us to share messages that focus on other empathic behaviors. You could say that the reason that kindness goes viral is that one good turn deserves another.

Because sharing things online is quick, easy and eminently do-able, people are able to reach out to one another on the fly to share altruistic acts that capture their attention. In return, you are rewarded with an improved outlook and increased feelings of well-being.

Increasingly, social media is becoming a vehicle to share triumphs and positive news. In 2009, Twitter put together the first Twestival, which raised $250,000 in under a week to bring clean drinking water to people in developing countries. In 2012, Cheers launched the first app built solely to encourage people to spread happiness through positive social posts.

Since then, Twestivals have been organized to contribute to numerous charities in over 200 countries around the globe, and Cheers was used to unite people in celebration of the U.N.'s first-ever International Day of Happiness earlier this year. That is kindness on a grand scale!

Kindness brings us together, heals hurts, and makes us happy. It defines us as human beings. As social creatures, we seek connection with others and feel compelled to share our joys and triumphs in the dramatic world of daily life. Social media continue to be at the forefront of activities that promote this sharing of kindness, happiness, gratitude and joy. New apps and programs are developed that allow us to focus on and share our joys with a click and allow us to connect across oceans and continents, expanding our group to encompass the world.