Acts of kindness are an excellent method to strengthen sentiments of social connectedness. Now, according to a study, the best medicine for curing depression and anxiety might just be kindness.
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A recent study from The Ohio State University found that small acts of kindness can help people combat sentiments of worry and sadness. Researchers claim that doing good actions results in significant mental health gains that are not evident with two other therapy modalities that are frequently employed to treat the diseases.
Perhaps more significantly, study co-author David Cregg notes that acts of kindness were the only mental health intervention that was evaluated to make respondents feel more connected to others. David Cregg directed the research as part of his psychology PhD dissertation at OSU.
“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,” Cregg explains in a statement.
The study also demonstrates that acts of kindness are beneficial for preventing depression and anxiety because they divert our attention from the unfavorable thoughts that would otherwise be preoccupying it. According to study co-author Jennifer Cheavens, an Ohio State psychology professor, this finding in particular suggests that a frequent misconception many people hold about those who suffer from depression may be false.
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“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,” she explains. “Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”
‘Prescribing’ acts of kindness for depression
122 central Ohio residents who had mild to moderate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression participated in this study. After an introduction, the subjects were divided into three groups. Planning social activities or cognitive reappraisal were given to two of the cohorts, two CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) approaches that are frequently used to treat depression.
Two social gatherings per week were to be organized by the committee in charge of social activities. The cognitive reappraisal group kept diaries for at least two days a week in an effort to help participants recognize and alter unhelpful thought patterns that could lessen anxiety and despair. On the other hand, participants in the third cohort were told to carry out three acts of kindness every day for two days out of the week.
“Big or small acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to you in terms of time or resources,” was the definition of a “act of kindness”. Participants mentioned doing things like baking cookies for friends, offering to drive a buddy, and writing encouraging remarks on sticky notes for roommates.
Over the course of five weeks, every cohort adhered to their instructions. Everyone was then assessed once more. After another five weeks had gone, researchers followed up with participants to see if the interventions were still working. After the 10 week study period, they discovered that subjects in all of the groups displayed an improvement in life satisfaction and a decrease in depressive and anxious symptoms.
“These results are encouraging because they suggest that all three study interventions are effective at reducing distress and improving satisfaction,” Cregg notes. “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.”
Good deeds strengthen social connectivity
The acts of kindness cohort also improved more than the cognitive reappraisal group in terms of life satisfaction as well as symptoms of despair and anxiety. Prof. Cheavens says that simply participating in social activities was insufficient in the study to boost sentiments of social connection.
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“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,” she comments.
Cregg emphasizes that, while CBT procedures were used in this study, the experience was not quite the same as being in therapy. People who attempt a full CBT treatment may achieve better improvements than those seen in this study. Furthermore, even the modest behavioral therapy exposure provided in this trial was beneficial to several participants.
“Not everyone who could benefit from psychotherapy has the opportunity to get that treatment,” Prof. Cheavens says. “But we found that a relatively simple, one-time training had real effects on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.”
Acts of kindness are also an excellent method to strengthen sentiments of social connectedness. “Something as simple as helping other people can go above and beyond other treatments in helping heal people with depression and anxiety,” Cregg concludes.
The research was published in the journal The Journal of Positive Psychology.