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.

Comments

  1. Metanalysis over the past decades has shown that anti depressants have
    little to no impact on depression. The medical profession has been brainwashed by the pharmaceutical companies into believing that depression is due to a “chemical imbalance” and can be reversed and restored with drugs that they manufacture. The placebo effect may also be at play for a small percentage who experience relief.

    1. Tell that to those of us who have been able to stay amongst the living because of antidepressants as part of a treatment plan. They aren’t perfect, but have kept many of us well enough to want to live; people with clinical depression, not a case of “the blues”.
      Comments like yours are irresponsible, and quite frankly ignorant.

      There’s no shame in medication for a mental illness anymore than for a physical illness.

  2. It’s evident and ashame we can’t even offer a bit of compassion here on this toward others! Real people with varied experiences with their feelings, thoughts and struggles with depression. I don’t think many American’s are happy people. Always clamoring for more, more and more. Why not practice just a wee bit more kindness towards one another? It’s so huge.

  3. Stop with this vile, dangerous fake news.

    I come from a long line of GENETIC depression. My father and grandfather both suffered and committed suicide. Myself and my 3 siblings have all suffered long term biological depression. This wasn’t just a mood or just something you can cure by being nice. I suffered my sole bout of depression from COVID induced neurological issues. I had respiratory, heart, urological issues but nothing is worse than a misfiring, depressed, chemically unbalanced brain.

    Of that weren’t enough, all my uncle’s/aunts and many cousins on my father’s side are bipolar or depressed.
    Words cannot express the living hell. If you don’t think chemicals highly impact mood there are countless drugs I can prove you wrong with.

    This fake news just fosters misinformation about those who are genetically cursed with depression genes and this article and study are beyond vile to those of us who understand true depression.

    Why don’t the people who ran this pathetic “study” researching real cures for for the brain when it is misfiring? Because it’s easier to just make crap up than do real science and truly innovate and advance humanity. My brother is suffering from treatment resistant depression and no human being alive can will themselves out of an episode like he is a victim of, no more than someone with a spinal cord injury can just decide to stand up.

    Stop the destructive fake news about depression. As if living with the curse of depression weren’t bad enough the so-called scientists have to spread fake news and spread misinformation about the disease.

    1. HadEnoughLies, I hear you about thinking this is a prescription for curing depression without meds (I don’t think they are saying that, but…), but I don’t think it’s right to write off the notion that kindness can affect depression. In my experience we start indeed with biology but then we work with what we’ve got – and that may mean taking meds, a ‘working with’ choice – and spending time and effort to serve others can, at a minimum, help take the edge off of our depression and provide real purpose to life, something one can lose sight of there in the depths of a depression.

      I wonder if kindness helped keep Lincoln alive; he would today be diagnosed as bi-polar, or manic depressive or something. Many people who saw him thought him the most miserable man they had ever met and worried for his life (and this was before the war years when depression should be expected). Check out, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President And Fueled His Greatness,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, for a good look at his depression.

      “Kindness is the only service that will stand the storm of life and not wash out.” – Abraham Lincoln

      And re that dismissive, “Fake News!” declaration: “I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.” – Abraham Lincoln

      I wonder, a. if Lincoln had been medicated if he would have acted differently regarding emancipation, etc. and, b. if he would have penned the words, “Malice towards none. Charity for all,” if he had not known malice, really known malice, and had chosen to be kind anyway…

      Respectfully

    2. Wow. Spoken by someone that sounds like they’ve never taken the focus off themselves. Instead of trashing this study, why not give it a try and do 3 acts of kindness daily for 2 days a week? Also, the article didn’t mention Bipolar. That’s totally different.

  4. I’m incredibly kind and people are awful in return, making me more depressed. It’s not a scientific study for sure.

    1. Perhaps you need to seek a different community of people to be with if possible. I practice kindness and my community reflects it back to me. MH

  5. Barbara, does your experience with depression mean everyone with depression is like you?

    Those people in my life who have recently told me to get help so consistently are the same people who have ignored my thoughts and feelings during most of our shared lives together. I learned to take their abuse as they are family and I did not know any better. I do now.

    I have kept the company of the wrong people my entire life. There are two kinds; selfless and selfish. I come from an extraordinarily selfish clan of emotional misfits. My proximity to their abuse is where my depression arises, both historically and even today. I am better so long as I remain distant from people like them.

    In pursuing a different sort of company, I have come to realize the benefits of acts of kindness as they were often lacking from my past relationships.

    Being around those misfits hurt me. They prefer to think all that is just in my head as if nothing they do affects me. Breaking my depression required no meds, only kindness.

    1. I agree, all people are not the same. Pills have numerous side effects. Just because a med is labeled “antidepressant” doesn’t mean it really cures the problem.

      I believe in behavioral changes. And, by the way, all caps is a bit angry.

  6. Please stop misleading people by saying acts of kindness will heal depression, it may heal feelings of being depressed but not DEPRESSION! Only thru antidepressants can heal DEPRESSION!

    1. If you can bring yourself to actually doing something kind for someone ( I can’t at present) than sure but not all of us are there.

    2. “ Only thru antidepressants can heal DEPRESSION!”

      That’s completely untrue. Anti-depressants are only effective in a minority of people relative to placebo. A large systematic review published in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry calls into question the “serotonin hypothesis” about depression. The drugs are not curing depression. They are an effective treatment for a small group of people. Cognitive behavioral therapy is at least as effective and has lower rates of relapse.

      Depression isn’t like a bacterial infection where an anti-biotic will (usually) clear it up. It’s much more complex and has a lot to do with more than simple biology (not that neurobiology is simple).

    3. Not necessarily true and I’d be very careful with any and all pharmaceutical antidepressants. They can make you much worse and the side effects can be deadly.

      Infact that’s what’s wrong with society…taking a pill to cure isn’t health.

  7. DO NOT DEBATE ME ON THIS, I AM AN EXPERT ON DEPRESSION AND I WILL DEBATE ANYONE TO PROVE ME WRONG, ONLY THROUGH A VERY QUALIFIED PSYCHIATRIST WHO PRESCRIBED ANTIDEPRESSANTS DID I GET THROUGH THAT NIGHMARE!

    1. I suspect your post is meant as a joke. There is a gigantic research literature involving well-controlled outcome studies that show that various forms of psychotherapy (e.g., CBT) are effective with depression. The combination of medication and psychotherapy is very often the “best” approach. Also, outcomes that randomly assign patients to placebo versus antidepressant medication show almost no difference in outcomes for mild to moderate depression. Placebos are remarkably effective RELATIVE TO medication.

      Your knowledge and overall perspective on what “works” with depression is extremely narrow, likely based on your personal experience.

  8. I stand by my comment on depression, as I said that comes after symptoms of depression are relieved ONLY after antidepressants!

  9. All well and good about performing acts of kindness in healing depression, but that comes after taking antidepressants. Anyone suffering and I mean suffering from depression can only be healed by antidepressants. As one who suffered from that affliction, I am definitely qualified to make that statement. As a result of that therapy, it is many years that I am free of that horrible affliction! I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy!

    1. Barbra,

      I really hope that you find some relief. The vast majority of antidepressants are crap. I have had the diagnosis of MDD for over 12 years. I have tried several ssri’s, bupropion, cbt, and ermd. It was all crap, then I discovered shrooms. I no longer feel like sucking a nitrogen bottle dry on a daily basis. I have hope and I have even started planning for the future. The shrooms combined with a good therapist at my local vet center seem to be working well for me. However, since you want to carry the flag for big pharma. I am willing to debate you until the cows come home. Antidepressants are part of the problem not an answer to issue of depression.

    2. I suffered from depression for 20 years after diagnosis of brain tumor (myself). I did the heavy lifting (meds/therapy) and can truly say I am not currently depressed. I get bouts of anxiety but they seem to be situational. Depression, imho, isn’t a one-size fits all diagnosis. Clinical depression is a whole other subset imho. Just my 2 cents from experience.

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