A recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology explores whether acts of kindness can be used as an effective intervention to improve the well-being of individuals. Results strongly suggested that performing repeated acts of kindness, big or small, increases a sense of social connection and enhances life satisfaction while reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Impressively, the study further suggests that such benefits from acts of kindness were more significant than the benefits from having regular social gatherings or even completing a regular thought record, a widely known CBT treatment method.
The authors, clinical psychologists and researchers David Cregg and Jennifer Chaevens, explained their findings:
“When individuals experience negative affective states – such as anxiety or depression – there is a ‘self-regulatory cycle’ in which repeated, failed attempts to reduce negative emotions result in a chronic preoccupation with one’s own suffering … Given that self-focused attention is linked with emotional distress and impaired social functioning, reducing self-focused attention may result in subsequent improvements in social connection and well-being. Performing acts of kindness likely requires a shift in attention away from oneself and onto the needs of other people, at least in the moment. Therefore, completing acts of kindness may reduce self-focused attention, which in turn may drive improvements in social connection and other dimensions of well-being.”
Cregg and Cheavens aimed to shed light on whether acts of kindness can be a potent treatment for individuals’ mental health and explore the mechanisms behind its effect. To do so, they randomly assigned 122 participants (undergrads in a psychology 101 course from a large midwestern city who had at least mild anxiety, depression, or stress symptoms) into three groups — an act of kindness group, social activities group, and a cognitive reappraisal group — and asked them to perform different group-specific tasks for five weeks. The researchers then measured the participants’ self-reported perceptions and feelings before, during, and after the weekly tasks.
Based on previous literature, the researchers hypothesized the following:
- Over time, all group participants will have less anxiety, fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer overall negative feelings.
- Participants in the act of kindness group will show more improvements in social connections, positive feelings, life satisfaction, and overall positive well-being.
- Participants in the acts of kindness group will have lower self-absorption over time than participants from other groups.
Participants in the acts of kindness group were asked to perform three acts of kindness per day for two days out of the week; participants in the social activities group were asked to plan social activities for two days a week; lastly, participants in the reappraisal group were asked to complete thought records for at least two days a week.
Further, all group participants were asked to complete a survey seven times: before the study, during each week, and five weeks after the tasks. Such surveys assessed participants’ emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress, their life satisfaction, self-absorption (how much participants focused on themselves), perceived social support, social connectedness, and positive/negative feelings.
The results supported all three of these hypotheses. First and foremost, all participants (including those with severe symptoms) from all groups showed improvement in life satisfaction and a decrease in negative feelings. Interestingly, these positive changes were maintained even five weeks after the tasks were complete. This suggests that every intervention in the study, whether being kind to others, seeking social gatherings or conducting thought journals, was an effective treatment method.
However, those in the act of kindness group appeared to have shown the most improvement. The authors note that “acts of kindness showed advantages over cognitive reappraisal and social activities for social connection [and] exhibited greater improvements than the cognitive reappraisal group for life satisfaction and composite symptom scores.”
The researchers suggest the act of kindness intervention has the potential to improve individuals’ depressive symptoms and overall mental health:
“Acts of kindness may be a promising candidate for improving social well-being […] prosocial behavior confers unique benefits that cannot be reduced to general social interaction. Therefore, incorporating specifically prosocial behavior into behavioral activation plans might increase the effectiveness of these interventions.”
In addition, the researchers found support for their third hypothesis, illustrating the potential mechanisms explaining how acts of kindness can benefit well-being. The researchers found that participants in the act of kindness group significantly decreased public self-absorption — how much one thinks about themselves from the imagined perspective of others. More importantly, they found that changes in public self-absorption predicted changes in depressive symptom scores, satisfaction with life, and social connection. The researchers add that the results “provide some of the first evidence of a mechanism of change for acts of kindness.”
There are a few important limitations to note regarding the study. First, data from this study was collected during COVID-19 and may have impacted the social environments and dynamics. Second, participants who performed thought records were under no regular guidance of a professional therapist, which would have likely shown better improvement in participants’ well-being. Third, all participants in this study were adults in a large midwestern city, and differing results may occur with youths or individuals residing in suburban or rural areas.
While current medical treatments prove ineffective at stemming the rising tide of distress, the results suggest that acts of kindness may present a novel, accessible, and effective intervention for improving well-being.
Cregg, D. R., & Cheavens, J. S. (2022). Healing through helping: an experimental investigation of kindness, social activities, and reappraisal as well-being interventions. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-18. (Link)