Life is an emotional event with ups and downs. Being in a bad mood is not pleasant and we all have solutions for lifting our spirits. Sometimes this may involve going for a jog, having a glass of wine or perhaps consuming a piece of chocolate. While these activities can be beneficial, new research suggests we should turn outward and rather than centering on ways to make ourselves feel better, wish others well.
“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University. Gentile and his research team — Dawn Sweet, senior lecturer in psychology, and Lanmiao He, graduate student in psychology — discovered the strategy is simple, doesn’t take a lot of time, and is easily incorporated into our daily activities.
Gentile, Sweet, and He tested the benefits of three different techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being.
The researchers had college students walk around a building for 12 minutes and practice one of the following strategies:
- Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
- Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
- Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.
The study also included a control group in which students were instructed to look at people and focus on what they saw on the outside, such clothing, color combinations, and textures as well as makeup and accessories. All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy and connectedness. Study results appear in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
For the study, researchers compared each technique with the control group and found those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well felt happier, more connected, caring, empathetic, and less anxious. The interconnectedness group was more empathetic and connected. Downward social comparison showed no benefit and was significantly worse than the loving-kindness technique.
Students who compared themselves to others felt less empathetic, caring and connected than students who extended well wishes to others. Although previous studies have shown downward social comparison has a buffering effect when we are feeling bad about ourselves, researchers found the opposite.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” Sweet said. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.”
The researchers also examined how different types of people reacted to each technique. They expected people who were naturally mindful might benefit more from the loving-kindness strategy, or narcissistic people might have a hard time wishing for others to be happy. They were somewhat surprised by the results.
“This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” He said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”
Researchers believe the results of the study suggest participation in social media to improve mood may be risky as use of social media prompts comparisons.
“It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile said. “Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”
Comparison works well when we are learning something or making a choice, Gentile said. For example, as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours. However, when it comes to well-being, comparison is not as effective as loving-kindness, which consistently improves happiness.
Source: Iowa State University