Best medicine for curing depression and anxiety? Kindness, study suggests

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A little bit of kindness shown toward others can help beat feelings of depression and anxiety, according to a new study from The Ohio State University. Scientists report that performing good deeds leads to notable mental health improvements not seen in two other therapeutic techniques commonly used to treat the conditions.

Perhaps just as importantly, study co-author David Cregg, who led the work as part of his PhD dissertation in psychology at OSU, adds that acts of kindness toward others was the only studied mental health intervention that resulted in subjects feeling more connected with other people.

“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with well-being. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to promote those connections,” Cregg explains in a statement.

The study also shows that acts of kindness are helpful for fighting depression and anxiety because when we help others, it takes our minds off of the negative thoughts that otherwise would be consuming our attention. This finding in particular indicates that a common perception many people share about others with depression may be wrong, according to study co-author Jennifer Cheavens, professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that,” she explains. “Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”

‘Prescribing’ acts of kindness for depression

This project included 122 people living in central Ohio with moderate to severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Following an introductory session, subjects were separated into three groups. Two of the cohorts were assigned to techniques often used in cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) for depression: planning social activities or cognitive reappraisal.

The social activities group was told to plan social get-togethers for two days a week. The cognitive reappraisal group kept records for at least two days per week intended to help them identify and change negative thought patterns in a way that could lower both depression and anxiety. Subjects assigned to the third cohort, on the other hand, were instructed to perform three acts of kindness daily for two days out of the week.

An “act of kindness” was defined as “big or small acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to you in terms of time or resources.” Some reported acts of kindness among participants included baking cookies for friends, offering to give a friend a ride, and leaving sticky notes for roommates with encouraging words.

Each cohort followed their instructions for a total of five weeks. After that everyone was evaluated again. Next, study authors checked in with subjects after another five weeks had passed, in order to see if the interventions were still effective. They found that subjects across all of the groups showed an increase in life satisfaction and a drop in depression and anxiety symptoms after the 10 week study period.

“These results are encouraging because they suggest that all three study interventions are effective at reducing distress and improving satisfaction,” Cregg notes. “But acts of kindness still showed an advantage over both social activities and cognitive reappraisal by making people feel more connected to other people, which is an important part of well-being.”

Good deeds strengthen social connectivity

The acts of kindness cohort also showed more improvements than the cognitive reappraisal group regarding both life satisfaction and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Prof. Cheavens adds that simply participating in social activities was not enough to improve feelings of social connection in the study.

“There’s something specific about performing acts of kindness that makes people feel connected to others. It’s not enough to just be around other people, participating in social activities,” she comments.

Importantly, Cregg stresses that while this study did use CBT techniques, it was not quite the same experience as actually being in therapy. People who try a full CBT treatment may get better results than those observed by this project. Moreover, even the limited behavioral therapy exposure given in this study did prove helpful for many participants.

“Not everyone who could benefit from psychotherapy has the opportunity to get that treatment,” Prof. Cheavens says. “But we found that a relatively simple, one-time training had real effects on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.”

Acts of kindness are also a great way to build stronger feelings of social connection. “Something as simple as helping other people can go above and beyond other treatments in helping heal people with depression and anxiety,” Cregg concludes.

The study is published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.