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An Act of Kindness Can Improve Your Mood in 12 Minutes

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We all have a remedy for lifting our spirits when we’re in a bad mood. 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 at Iowa State University. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

About the Study

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.

The study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, also included a control group in which students were instructed to look at people and focus on what they see on the outside, such as their clothing, the combination of colors, textures as well as makeup and accessories. All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy and connectedness.

Love and Kindness Wins

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.

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.”

Excerpted from “A simple strategy to improve your mood in 12 minutes” published by the Iowa State University news service. Read the full news release from Iowa State, or view the study abstract.

Source: Iowa State University | A simple strategy to improve your mood in 12 minutes, https://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2019/03/27/happiness | Copyright © 1995-2019 Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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