On International Kindness Day 2023, we review new research that shows performing acts of kindness can have a positive impact on those with depression.
What the research says
As reported by ScienceDaily, people suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety may actually help themselves and their condition by doing good deeds for others, new research published by Ohio State University shows. The study found that performing acts of kindness led to improvements not seen in two other therapeutic techniques used to treat depression or anxiety.
The study found that performing acts of kindness led to improvements not seen in two other therapeutic techniques used to treat depression or anxiety. Most importantly, however, the acts of kindness technique were the only intervention tested that helped people feel more connected to others, according to study co-author David Cregg.
Speaking about the study findings, Mr Cregg said,
“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with well-being. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to promote those connections.”
The details of the findings
The research also revealed why performing acts of kindness worked so well – it helped people take their minds off their own depression and anxiety symptoms. This finding suggests that one intuition many people have about people with depression may be wrong.
Jennifer Cheavens, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said,
“We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that. Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”
How did the study work?
The study involved 122 people in central Ohio who had moderate to severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. After an introductory session, the participants were split into three groups.
Two of the groups were assigned to techniques often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression –
- Planning social activities – this group was instructed to arrange social activities for two days a week; or
- Cognitive reappraisal – These participants kept records for at least two days each week that helped them identify negative thought patterns and revise their thoughts in a way that could reduce depression and anxiety.
Meanwhile, the members of the third group were instructed to perform three acts of kindness a day for two days out of the week. Acts of kindness were defined as ‘big or small acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to you in terms of time or resources.’
Some of the acts of kindness that participants later said included baking cookies for friends, offering a friend a ride, and leaving sticky notes for roommates with words of encouragement.
Participants followed their instructions for five weeks, after which they were re-evaluated. The researchers then checked with the participants after another five weeks to see if the interventions were still effective.
What were the results at the end of the study period?
The findings showed that participants in all three groups showed an increase in life satisfaction and a reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms after the ten weeks of the study.
In addition, the acts of kindness group showed more significant improvements than the cognitive reappraisal group for life satisfaction and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Going into further details of the study findings, Mr Cregg said,
“These results are encouraging because they suggest that all three study interventions are effective at reducing distress and improving satisfaction. But acts of kindness still showed an advantage over both social activities and cognitive reappraisal by making people feel more connected to other people, which is an important part of well-being.”
Elaborating on his conclusions, Cregg said that while this study used techniques of CBT, it is not the same experience as going through CBT. Those who undergo the entire treatment may have better results than those in this study.
Ms. Cheavens, adding both clarity and context to the findings, noted that just participating in social activities did not improve feelings of social connection in this study, saying,
“There’s something specific about performing acts of kindness that makes people feel connected to others. It’s not enough to just be around other people, participating in social activities.”
But the findings also show that even the limited CBT exposure given in this study can be helpful, Cheavens went on to say.
“Not everyone who could benefit from psychotherapy has the opportunity to get that treatment,” she said. “But we found that a relatively simple, one-time training had real effects on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.”
Mr Cregg also added, in summary, that beyond traditional CBT, acts of kindness may have additional benefits in creating social connection, saying,
“Something as simple as helping other people can go above and beyond other treatments in helping heal people with depression and anxiety.”
It seems that the results of this study confirm what many people have thought for a long time – that displays of kindness, generosity, and support to others can have a positive impact on one’s own mental wellbeing.
What more evidence do we all need to ensure that we start the new year the right way by performing acts of kindness towards others from time to time – particularly if it benefits us while also benefiting the recipient of our actions?
What do you think of the research findings? Do you purposely perform acts of kindness as part of your life’s routine? Tell us more in the comments.