A simple strategy to improve your mood in 12 minutes
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New Zealand Tribe member Silvia wrote me a lovely email following a recent TR story about the power of thanking people. In it she wrote: “Last week I shared your ‘power of gratitude’ post, which was well liked by my colleagues; we have quite a neat internal initiative that encourages people to ‘send a thank you’ (a message and a small gift) when colleagues do something that is worth recognizing—I suspect that your article will motivate people to use our ‘send a thank you’ even more now.” Amen, gratitude is a great two-way spirit-lifter.
We all have a remedy—a glass of wine (only Merlot really works—but just a splash) or a piece of chocolate (only dark and sugar-free)—for lifting our spirits when we’re in a bad mood. But rather than focusing on ways to make ourselves feel better, a team of researchers suggests wishing others well raises our mood most powerfully.
What the researchers say: “Walking around and offering kindness to others reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said the lead researcher. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”
The team tested the benefits of three different techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being. They did this by having 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, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, also included a control group in which students were instructed to look at people and focus on what they see on the outside, such as their clothing, the combination of colors, textures as well as makeup and accessories. All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy and connectedness.
The researchers compared each technique with the control group and found those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well felt happier, more connected, caring and empathetic, as well as 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. Previous studies have shown downward social comparison has a buffering effect when we are feeling bad about ourselves. These researchers found the opposite.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” they 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,” a co-author of the study said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”
So, what? Comparison works well when we are learning something or making a choice. 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, as the researchers remind us, consistently improves happiness. It’s a gift that keeps giving—for yourself.
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