To boost your mood on a stressful day, try wishing happiness to the strangers around you. You don’t even have to say it out loud.
When people were asked to spend just 12 minutes silently wishing others well as they walked around, they reported lower anxiety, greater happiness, more empathy and higher feelings of caring and connectedness, a recent paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found.
The technique helps change people’s emotions by helping them feel “among” others, rather than apart from them, said lead author Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University.
Our mindset changes who we are and that changes the situation.
“It’s getting at something that’s deeply human, which is: We want to live in society — we want to live in connection with others and we want to live in kindness. Yet we often forget that and we just become very self-focused,” Gentile told TODAY.
“It helps us to shift our focus to recognizing that we all want to be happy, we all want many of the same things. You’re just saying this silently to yourself in your head — the other person has no idea what you’re wishing them. Our mindset changes who we are and that changes the situation.”
Gentile wanted to know more about the technique — known as “loving-kindness” — after meeting Chade-Meng Tan, a former Google engineer who created a mindfulness course for the search engine giant and has been dubbed Silicon Valley's "Zen master."
Chatting at a White House conference, Tan told him the best thing he could do to immediately improve his mood was to observe people walking around and say to himself, “I wish for that person to be happy,” Gentile recalled. So the professor set out to test if the approach really worked.
Researchers recruited 496 students who were randomly assigned to try “loving-kindness” and two other well-known techniques believed to boost mood. Each group did the task for 12 minutes, a time frame the researchers thought would be long enough to have an effect.
Students assigned to try “loving-kindness” were asked to walk around a building, look at the people they passed, think to themselves “I wish for this person to be happy,” and really mean it.
Others practiced “interconnectedness,” which required them to think about how much they were connected to the people they passed. For example, they might experience the same stresses, enjoy the same class or like the same restaurant where they food was prepared by the same chef.
Participants who tried “downward social comparison” were asked to notice people passing by and think of ways their lives might be better than the lives of the strangers. The idea is “you can feel better about yourself because someone is always worse off,” Gentile said.
Those in the control group just walked around and looked at the people walking by.
Afterwards, all the students took tests to measure their levels of anxiety, happiness, life satisfaction, empathy, connectedness and caring.
The clear winner was the “loving-kindness” technique. Compared to the control group, it improved mood and happiness while lowering anxiety. The “interconnectedness” technique only boosted feelings of social connection, while “downward social comparison” didn’t make people feel any better, the study found.
Gentile advised practicing “loving-kindness” every day, especially during frustrating moments. When you’re stuck in traffic and annoyed by all the other drivers, for example, recognize they’re just as annoyed as you are and wish for them to be happy — it will help you calm down, he noted.
Gentile himself has been practicing “loving-kindness” for several years and said he has become a much more content person: “It’s a nice practice to do as much as you can."