Surprising Study: Being Kind to Others Improves Your Own Mental Health

Surprising Study: Being Kind to Others Improves Your Own Mental Health

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Of course, we all know that being kind to others often makes them feel good. It can be as simple as holding the door for someone or as meaningful as offering to drive a friend with cancer to every chemotherapy treatment. Being the recipient of an act of kindness can improve everything from a person’s mood to their overall quality of life.

However, a recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that kindness can also help the person who be kind. According to the researchers, people with depression and anxiety have seen a reduction in their symptoms by performing simple acts of kindness. In fact, acts of kindness can improve feelings of well-being more effectively than some common mental health treatment techniques.

In the study, participants were randomly assigned to three groups for two weeks: a control group; an Acts of Kindness group, which performed one act of kindness per day; and a gratitude list group, who kept a daily list of things they were grateful for. Only participants in the acts of kindness and gratitude groups reported significant reductions in their anxiety symptoms, while the control group showed no significant changes.

Additionally, engaging in kind acts and expressing gratitude helped to improve social bonds between participants. Social connection, they found, plays a key role in well-being and recovery from anxiety and depressive disorders.

The benefits of kindness for both parties

These discoveries are not revolutionary but are certainly welcome. My colleagues and I often witness the power of people who receive and offer kindness.

Practicing kindness cultivates increased positive energy that moves us beyond our usual ways of being. It opens us up to a more vital and connected life experience.

Receiving kindness can also be life changing. When we work with patients to improve and maintain their mental health, we often focus on both gratitude and kindness. We teach patients that slowing down their daily lives to find every moment to appreciate someone or something actually promotes their own inherent desire for connection and joy.

I remember a former patient with debilitating depression who identified as cisgender (his gender identity matched the sex he was assigned at birth) when he began treatment. As with all patients, this individual was greeted with warmth and support from our care team as well as the connection, acceptance and kindness of her peers.

As the treatment progressed, my colleagues and I noticed an increase in the patient’s depression. Soon after, they came out as transgender.

The patient explained that staff and peers went to great lengths to connect with them, support them, and be genuinely invested in their well-being. They explained that it was this kindness that caused them to be vulnerable about their identity and allowed them to present their preferred identity in a caring and supportive environment, greatly relieving their depression.

How to Cultivate Kindness

To reap the benefits of kindness, which also include lower death rates, greater functional ability, reduced stress, and reduced risk of disease, I recommend trying these three simple tips:

  • To slow down. Slow down, make eye contact and smile. It’s simple kindness and it can give you and someone else a boost!
  • Addressing Vulnerability. When you find yourself caught up in your own world, try to step out of yourself and reach out to do something nice for someone. It can open both you and the recipient to connection, which ultimately promotes vitality.
  • Schedule it. If you lack practice with kindness, make a plan. Commit to two daily acts of kindness and write down your intentions and what your kindness will look like.

With practice, kindness will become a natural way of being. And that, both research and anecdotal evidence, can lead to better mental and physical health for everyone involved.

Leah Berman is a Registered Clinical Social Worker and Ambulatory Care Supervisor at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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