Business Professor Assigns Acts of Kindness to Bolster Students’ Mental Health While Teaching Lessons on Marketing

Professor Bela Florenthal

William Paterson University Professor of Marketing and Management Bela Florenthal saw a need in class beyond educating her students on the principles of marketing. She saw a generation struggling with mental health issues and got creative with her course syllabi in trying to flip the script.

In the fall of 2019, as part of her Marketing Management and Marketing Research courses in the University’s Cotsakos College of Business, Florenthal launched the “Spread Kindness” project, wherein students are required to perform acts of kindness—intentional, selfless acts toward another human, animal, or nature without a foreseeable reward to the performer except for feeling good, as her syllabus describes them.

“Studies indicate that engaging in prosocial behavior, such as performing intentional acts of kindness, for a period of time may have a lasting impact on wellbeing,” Florenthal explains. “Many argue that to create a habit, you need to do something for 21 days. I decided that engaging students in an acts of kindness project for the entire semester might increase the possibility that my students will make acts of kindness a habit long after the semester is over.” 

Now, with several semesters of very positive student survey reactions under her belt, Florenthal is taking “Spread Kindness” beyond campus. Two cohorts of students at Butler High School were assigned the project in a dual-enrollment course, Principles of Marketing, developed by Florenthal and taught by Butler High’s Lisa Chestnutt. With assistance from her high school counterpart, Florenthal has been writing papers and presenting data about both the University and high school projects’ results for peer-reviewed conferences. Her hope: that class projects like “Spread Kindness” will, themselves, spread.

As the 17-24 age group is at a peak period for the onset of mental health disorders, Florenthal says citing numerous studies, she’d love to see intentional, systematical enactment of prosocial projects in courses in other disciplines, at other universities, and in K-12 settings.

How does it work?

In her “Spread Kindness” project, Florenthal’s students are divided into groups, with each group treated as though it were a non-profit organization. Within those non-profits, each student is considered a “brand.” As the project unfolds, students learn and enact various marketing concepts, including how to position themselves in relation to other students (or “competing brands”) based on the growth rate of their acts of kindness and their market share within their groups.

Students must report their acts of kindness in qualitative (photos and blog posts) and quantitative (spreadsheet) manners, describing any witnesses or efforts to promote the act of kindness via social media or other forms, and then they analyze their data with the application of course models.

“Students reported committing incredible acts of kindness,” Florenthal says. “They were cleaning parks, giving food to homeless people, baking and bringing treats to share with coworkers, driving their friends around to save on emissions, and donating clothes and toys to organizations and neighbors.”

The result on their mental health? Eighty-four percent of surveyed WP students expressed overall personal satisfaction from taking part in the acts of kindness project, rating emotional, cognitive, and behavioral engagement highly (4’s and 5’s on a 5-point scale).

Meanwhile, at the high school level, the emotional component of the project resonated most, according to collected data. Excitement, pride, inspiration, and enthusiasm were mentioned by the younger students most frequently, at 77 percent.

“The qualitative data provide strong evidence for students fulfilling their self-actualization need by engaging in selfless and altruistic behaviors,” Florenthal says, adding that “the ultimate goal of educators, overall, is promoting students’ wellbeing, of which good mental health is a very integral part.”