Feeling down in the dumps? If you want to stop wallowing in your own misery, new research suggests that the best method is to stop focusing on yourself and think kind thoughts about other people instead.
Yes, it sounds like the PSA at the end of a children’s show, but among the methods tested by researchers in a new study, getting out and about, and thinking positive things about other people while walking around for 12 minutes, got the best results.
Study participants who engaged in this activity reported feeling lower anxiety, greater happiness and empathy, and more connectedness than the control group.
“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said psychologist Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University.
“It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”
To be perfectly clear, you don’t actually have to interact with anyone, so if your anxiety is of the social variety, it could help you, too.
Here’s what the researchers did to find this result. A total of 496 study participants were divided into groups assigned to a particular condition the team wanted to investigate.
Each group was tasked with completing a survey before spending 12 minutes walking around the university’s hallways and thinking specific thoughts about other people they saw. The difference lay in the type of thoughts each group was instructed to think.
The 127 people in the loving-kindness group were to look at people they saw and think “I wish for this person to be happy,” meaning it as genuinely as they possibly could.
Meanwhile, 125 people in the interconnectedness group were tasked with thinking about ways they were connected to people they saw; that is, what they might have in common with them, such as similar classes, or hopes and fears they might share, or restaurants they might frequent.
An additional 109 people were placed in the downward social comparison group – these participants had to think of ways they were better than the other people they saw.
And the 135 people in the control group were instructed just to focus on external details without judgement, such as clothing colours and textures, makeup, and items other people may have been carrying.
When they came back, the participants had to complete more surveys, measuring such things as anxiety, happiness, satisfaction, empathy, connectedness, caring, and contentment.
The loving-kindness group scored the highest, with less anxiety and more empathy, connectedness, and caring. The interconnected group also scored highly in connectedness and caring.
Surprisingly, personality type and gender didn’t seem to play a role. People who scored high on a narcissism test for the research had no more difficulty thinking kind thoughts than people who scored highly on a mindfulness test.
The downward social comparison group, on the other hand, scored significantly below the loving-kindness group – contradicting previous research in the 1980s that downward social comparison makes people feel better about themselves.
More recent research had already suggested that it may not be the case, and this is what the researchers found, too. The downward social comparison group scored much lower on empathy, caring and connectedness than the loving-kindness group.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” said Iowa State University psychologist Dawn Sweet. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.”
It’s a result that could tie into the relatively recent phenomenon whereby active users of social media feel depressed. Previously, it had been linked to upward social comparison – feeling that the lives of others as portrayed on social media are better than the observer’s, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
But this research shows it could cut both ways – that no matter who you’re comparing yourself with, it’s going to make yourself feel a bit rubbish.
Maybe we should all try practising a little more kindness instead?
The research has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.