Mental Health

Yet Another Study Shows The Radical Health Benefits Of Kindness

It also increases social connectedness, which improves mental and physical health and increases longevity.

Originally Published: 
A man holds up his hands to high-five another man.

Nearly 10% of U.S. adults experience at least one depressive episode each year, and nearly 20% have an anxiety disorder, making depression and anxiety two of the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. For those living with either, finding relief from symptoms can be difficult. But a new research study finds that people can get some relief by doing one simple thing: an act of kindness.

For the study, the research team recruited a group of 122 people from central Ohio who all reported symptoms of stress, depression, or anxiety. They split the participants into three groups; two groups underwent a type of cognitive behavioral therapy each — planning social outings and cognitive reappraisal — and the third performed acts of kindness. Members of the first group planned social activities for two days per week, the cognitive reappraisal group journaled for at least two days per week to recognize and address negative thought patterns, and the third group performed three acts of kindness for two days per week. The intervention lasted for five weeks.

At the end of the study, all participants showed improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, the group that performed acts of kindness also showed an increase in feelings of connection to other people, which the other groups did not.

“Doing an act of kindness for someone may create a very special bond between you and the recipient of your kind action, whereas merely spending time with others does not necessarily encourage the same level of social intimacy,” says study co-author David Cregg, Ph.D., a Texas-based psychologist who performed the study as part of his dissertation at Ohio State University.

“I’ve known plenty of people who tell me they feel lonely even when in a group,” Cregg says. “But when you’re deliberately doing a kind act for someone, it forces you to interact with that person in a very active and intimate way.”

Why are these feelings of connection to other people useful? Studies show that people who report social isolation or feelings of loneliness are more likely to develop depression, substance use disorders, abuse, and sleep disorders. Loneliness can also increase the risk of physical ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

Intentionally performing acts of kindness for five weeks seemed to form the practice into a habit. “One thing we were pleasantly surprised by at our follow-up assessment [5 weeks after the study ended] is that 75% of the participants reported continuing to do acts of kindness even after the study ended,” Cregg says.

He adds that just doing nice things for people to make yourself feel better won’t achieve the same result. When the researchers gave the participants their instructions, they didn’t tell them that performing acts of kindness could potentially make them feel better. “We very deliberately omitted those kinds of messages, as in a sense the whole point was to shift people’s focus away from worrying about their own happiness and mental health symptoms.” Rather, the acts of kindness may have shifted their attention onto other people, he says.

“If folks want to start doing kind acts, volunteering, etc., don’t do it because it will make you happy,” he says. “Find something that you really believe in, regardless of how it makes you feel, and go and do that thing.”

“The happiness and wellbeing benefits are likely to come as a nice side effect of investing in causes you believe in. But if you’re trying to pursue a certain type of feeling, you may find that those feelings are elusive.”

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