Everyone has a different way for getting out of a funk when they’re feeling low. Rather than focusing on ways to make ourselves feel better, a team of Iowa State University researchers suggests wishing others well. “Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”
Gentile, Dawn Sweet, senior lecturer in psychology; and Lanmiao He, graduate student in psychology, tested the benefits of three different techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being. They did this by having college students walk around a building for 12 minutes and practice one of the following strategies:
- Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
- Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
- Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.
A simple practice of kindness to improve your mood
The researchers compared each technique with the control group and found those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well felt happier, more connected, caring and empathetic, as well as less anxious. The interconnectedness group was more empathetic and connected. Downward social comparison showed no benefit, and was significantly worse than the loving-kindness technique. Students who compared themselves to others felt less empathetic, caring and connected than students who extended well wishes to others. Previous studies have shown downward social comparison has a buffering effect when we are feeling bad about ourselves. ISU researchers found the opposite.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” Sweet said. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.”
The researchers also examined how different types of people reacted to each technique. They expected people who were naturally mindful might benefit more from the loving-kindness strategy, or narcissistic people might have a hard time wishing for others to be happy. They were somewhat surprised by the results. “This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” Lanmiao He said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”
Social media comparisons
Social media is like a playground for comparisons: he makes more money than I; she has a nicer car. While the study did not look specifically at social media, Gentile says the results demonstrate that comparison is a risky strategy. “It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile said. “Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”
Comparison works well when we are learning something or making a choice, Gentile said. For example, as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours. However, when it comes to well-being, comparison is not as effective as loving-kindness, which consistently improves happiness.
Materials provided by Iowa State University. Read this article on Science Daily —> Iowa State University. “A simple strategy to improve your mood in 12 minutes.”sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190327112705.htm.
Studies also have shown that when people think about, observe or practice a kind act, that act of kindness stimulates that vagus nerve, which is helpful to the heart, and is thought to be be closely connected to the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, (a naturally occurring soothing hormone involved in bonding). A well functioning vagus nerve is also associated with greater social and psychological skills covering everything from the ability to empathize to those related to memory and concentration. Practicing kindness also triggers the reward system in our brain’s emotion regulation center releasing dopamine, the hormone that’s associated with positive emotions and the sensation of a natural high.
Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD
Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Sonoma County California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.
Contact Dr. Holland to reserve an appointment at 707-479-2946.