Study: acts of kindness are successful in fighting depression, anxiety

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

Kindness may be a cure for anxiety and depression according to a new study out of The Ohio State University (OSU).

David Cregg led the study as part of his Ph.D. dissertation in psychology at Ohio State along with Jennifer Cheavens, a professor of psychology at the university.

The study was published in December in The Journal of Positive Psychology and describes how social connection can impact anxiety and depression. The research involved 122 people in Ohio who had moderate to severe depression, anxiety, and stress.

METHODOLOGY

The participants were separated into three groups after an introductory session. One group was assigned to plan social activities two days a week. The second group of participants was instructed to use a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique called cognitive reappraisal, which encourages patients to identify negative thought patterns and reframe their thinking to encourage positive thoughts and reduce depression and anxiety.

In the third group, participants were assigned to perform three acts of kindness a day for two days of the week. These acts were 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.”

Each group was encouraged to document their thoughts during the study and some examples of kindness that participants recorded were baking cookies for friends, offering a ride, and leaving notes with words of encouragement.

Participants followed instructions for their assignments for five weeks, after which they were re-evaluated. To determine if the interventions continued to be effective, the researchers checked with the participants after another five weeks.

KINDNESS IS THE BEST MEDICINE

While all three interventions yielded positive results, acts of kindness lead to improvements that were not seen in the other two groups, suggesting that acts of kindness and connecting with others directly impact mental health.

“These results are encouraging because they suggest that all three study interventions are effective at reducing distress and improving satisfaction,” Cregg said in a statement. “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.”

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.

OTHER STUDIES CONFIRM

Other studies support the idea that acts of kindness are beneficial to mental health. Research from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley indicates that kindness activates the pleasure center of the brain, releasing chemicals that can positively impact our mood and reduce levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.

However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, resulting in impairments that can limit or alter a person’s ability to carry out major life activities. In 2020, an estimated 21 million adults in America had at least one major depressive episode with prevalence rates being highest in females and those aged 18-25.

Treatment of depression and anxiety usually includes a combination of therapy and medication. Psychotherapy can help to learn skills, modify problematic behaviors, cope with stress, and overcome fear.

The authors of this study are hopeful that this research will have benefits outside of traditional therapy. Cheavens explains that this “relatively simple, one-time training had real effects on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms,” and that “doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”

Editor’s Biblical Analysis

The Biblical lesson here is pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the teachings of Christ. When asked what the most important commandment was,

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40

As Christ Jesus pointed out, love is the foundation of His Word. The Bible is full of commandments to kindness and love (Luke 6:35, Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:12, Gal. 6:10, 1 John 3:18, Phillipians 2:1-30). The Bible also teaches us that kindness and love benefit not only the recipient but also those who show kindness and love (Prov. 11:17, 14:21, 19:17, 1 Peter 3:9, Romans 11:22).

So, Believer, go forth and show kindness and love to those around you, knowing that in doing so you not only benefit those who receive your kindness, but you also please God and will reap the rewards of obedience to Him.

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