Depression and anxiety are rampant these days, especially among young people. Those who suffer from either can find their work, physical health, and overall sense of well-being compromised.
Luckily, there are some effective treatments for depression and anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT often involves learning how to identify and challenge negative thought patterns and to add more fun, positive activities back into your life, among other techniques. But, while CBT helps many people have less anxiety and depression, it may not have much effect on their sense of social connection—a central part of a happy, healthy life.
Now, a new study suggests there may be a good way to get all those benefits when you’re feeling depressed or anxious: do random acts of kindness.
Five weeks of kindness
In this study, participants with medium levels of depressive or anxiety symptoms (on average) were randomly assigned to do one of three things over the course of five weeks:
- Perform three random acts of kindness on two days of the week. These were defined as “big or small acts that benefit others or make them happy, typically at some cost to yourself in terms of time or resources.” People ended up doing acts of kindness for both people they knew and strangers—like buying coffee for a stranger in line at Starbucks, baking cookies for friends, and offering to shovel snow from a neighbor’s driveway.
- Plan a social activity on two days of the week. These were defined as “big or small activities you intentionally plan with other people for the purpose of enjoyment.”
- Complete a “thoughts record” for at least two days a week. Thoughts records involve using a workbook to identify distressing or distorted thoughts and learn how to challenge those thoughts to make them less problematic (a CBT technique called cognitive reappraisal).
Before the experiment started, every week during, and five weeks after it ended, the participants reported on their depression, anxiety, and stress; their sense of social support; their positive and negative feelings; their satisfaction with life; and their degree of “self-absorption”—meaning, how much they focused on themselves in private and how self-conscious they were about what other people thought of them in public.
Results showed that, after the experiment, all three groups of people were less depressed and anxious, had lower negative feelings, and felt more satisfied with life. But the group that practiced random acts of kindness had greater reductions in depression and anxiety and higher satisfaction with life. And, while acts of kindness and social activities both improved people’s sense of social support, practicing kindness improved it even more, with benefits lasting up to five weeks.
Coauthor Jennifer Cheavens of The Ohio State University says she was surprised by the findings, in some ways.
“We did think that, if there was going to be an advantage of one group over another, it might be the thoughts record group, since that’s such a tried-and-true way of addressing depressive [and anxiety] symptoms,” she says. “But the kindness group did as well or better, and that group also had increases in social connection that didn’t happen in the other two groups.”
How kindness helps us
Why would kind acts help with mental health symptoms? It’s not certain, says Cheavens. But in the study, they did find that being kind to others made people less self-conscious in public settings, which, in turn, was tied to less depression and anxiety.
“When people engaged in doing things for other people, these prosocial behaviors seemed to attenuate that self-focus that we all get sometimes when we’re in social situations,” she says.
Though practicing kindness and doing thoughts records both increased people’s positive feelings over time, doing kind acts had larger benefits early on (which tapered off), while the opposite was true for thoughts records—positive feelings went down at first, then improved over time. That may explain why fewer people dropped out of the kindness activity than the thoughts record, says Cheavens.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to get the hang of doing something kind for other people, but it takes time to get the hang of thinking about your own thoughts differently and evaluating the evidence for your negative thoughts,” she says.
Still, it seems like it might be hard to convince people who are depressed and anxious to add random acts of kindness to their lives. After all, they are already feeling overwhelmed and may have trouble getting themselves motivated to do more. Cheavens says she wondered the same thing before the experiment happened. But, as it turned out, this wasn’t a problem.
“I was surprised it was not a particularly hard sell. The people in the acts of kindness group had better uptake in some ways than the people in other groups,” she says.
Treating depression and anxiety
Given her findings, Cheavens is interested in seeing whether more kind acts would be even more beneficial. In future studies, she’d like to work with people with more severe depression and anxiety and to see if the type of kind acts or the beneficiaries matter for alleviating symptoms.
Still, it’s important to note that she is not suggesting only prescribing kind acts to people with depression and anxiety—nor is she saying CBT should be abandoned as the preferred treatment for them. A thoughts record is not the same as engaging in CBT with a licensed therapist, and the therapy has a long history of being effective.
But the study does suggest that people in treatment may get some added benefits from doing random acts of kindness. If doing so helps people improve social connections, while aiding with their symptoms, it’s pretty much a win-win to consider kind acts as an add-on to therapy, says Cheavens.
And, for those of us who may suffer from less serious anxiety or depressive thoughts sometimes, it could be a good idea to get out of our own heads and just turn our focus on others. Not only can being kind help your mood, it can make you feel closer and more connected to people—something we could use more of in society, in general.
“The Surgeon General has been talking about the importance of belongingness and socially connecting to other people, and acts of kindness . . . may be a little less vulnerable than other ways we put ourselves out there,” she says. “I know that when I’m feeling a little cranky or burned out, doing things for other people is often a go-to strategy for me.”