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Performing acts of kindness is a powerful tool to fight depression and anxiety, study finds

Performing acts of kindness may ease anxiety and depression symptoms and promote well-being, a new study found. Experts explain the advantages of healing by helping others.
/ Source: TODAY

We all know that acts of kindness can brighten someone else's day. But new research suggests that good deeds can also help ease the doer's own symptoms of anxiety and depression, along with promoting social connection and improving overall life satisfaction.

According to a study from researchers at Ohio State University published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, performing acts of kindness may even result in greater social well-being than techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat depression and anxiety.

“Social connection seems to be one of the most powerful ingredients for flourishing in life,” David Cregg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-author of the study, told TODAY in a segment aired Jan. 20.

“We demonstrated that performing acts of kindness promotes social connection, a construct that is a key predictor of both well-being and recovery from anxiety and depressive disorders,” the study authors wrote.

However, social connection is often impaired among individuals with anxiety or depressive disorders, the study authors noted, and "CBT techniques may be ineffective at improving social connection." The researchers set out to determine whether acts of kindness may improve social connection more effectively.

The study involved 122 participants with elevated anxiety or depression symptoms who were randomly split into three groups. Two of the groups were assigned to practice CBT techniques, such as planning social activities, and the third was assigned to engage in acts of kindness.

The participants in the kindness group were asked to perform three small acts of kindness two days a week for five weeks. Participants did things like bake cookies for friends, smile at strangers and volunteer, TODAY reported.

"Folks who participated in the acts of kindness group reported that they felt less depressed, less anxious," Jennifer Cheavens, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and a study co-author, told TODAY in a segment aired Jan. 20.

All three groups reported greater life satisfaction and a reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms, but participants in the acts of kindness group showed the most improvement, according to the study authors.

Those in the kindness group experienced such a benefit that 75% percent of them continued performing acts of kindness even after the study ended, TODAY reported.

“We further demonstrated that performing acts of kindness results in greater well-being benefits than established CBT techniques,” the study authors wrote.

Cregg added: "There just seems to be something about having social connection that brings meaning and purpose into our lives. ... Without it, everything else just kind of feels empty."

These findings highlight the clinical potential of acts of kindness to treat anxiety and depression, but future research is needed, the study authors wrote.

Whether it’s complimenting a stranger, buying a coffee for your co-worker or holding the door for others, performing acts of kindness is "one of the most powerful things that you can do, and it's so practical," Kojo Sarfo, who holds a doctorate of nursing practice and is psychotherapist and mental health nurse practitioner, told TODAY in a segment aired Jan. 20.

"For those who are struggling with depression and or anxiety who may feel hopeless and helpless, just having a connection with people, it goes a long way," Sarfo said, adding that acts of kindness may even help you make a new friend.

"Even if you're depressed and unable to get out of bed, you can call somebody, send them a message or leave them a nice voice recording just to make their spirits feel a bit better," Sarfo continued.

Doing nice things for others can also help people feel a greater sense of purpose or impact on others, which is important for people who are suffering with symptoms of anxiety or depression, Sarfo added.

"You realize that people do appreciate (you), people enjoy having (you) here on the planet. When you're depressed and you're hopeless, you sometimes forget that," Sarfo said.

Sarfo encouraged parents to teach their kids about the importance of being kind to others. It can start with something as simple as holding the door open for somebody. "It doesn't have to be the biggest thing ... but it could make their day," he said.