What do you do when you’re in a bad mood? Maybe you grab a bowl of ice cream or plop down in front of the television. Or perhaps you do something healthier like go for a walk or write in a journal. According to researchers at Iowa State University, a sure-fire antidote to the blues is to focus on others.
“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, in a statement. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”
For the study, Gentile and his colleagues had students walk around a building for 12 minutes and use one of three approaches.
Loving-kindness – Students were told to look at the people they see and think to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” They were encouraged to try to really mean it when they were thinking positive thoughts.
Interconnectedness – Students in this group looked at the people they saw and thought about how they might be linked to each other. They were encouraged to think about any feelings or hopes that they might have in common or something as simple as they might take similar classes.
Downward social comparison – Here, students were told to think about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.
This study also included a control group of students who were told to look at people and focus on what they see on the outside, such as clothing, makeup and accessories. Before and after going for their walk, all students were assessed for levels of anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy and connectedness.
Compared to the control group, students 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.
Students who compared themselves to others felt less empathetic, caring and connected than those who extended good wishes to others.
There was no benefit with downward social comparison, according to the study which was published online recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” said study co-author Dawn Sweet, an Iowa State senior lecturer in psychology. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.”