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How Two Innate Capacities Can Improve Mental Health

Research shows why helping others and positive communication increase well-being

Key points

  • Research underscores that individuals' interconnection with others is crucial to their mental health.
  • Acts of kindness have been found to diminish anxiety and depression.
  • Positive communication with a friend during the day leads to greater well-being afterwards.

"There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others...that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. The more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill-will, the more miserable we become. Thus we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion." — The Dalai Lama

Sometimes, the best empirical research is that which confirms what we already know or intuitively feel: a truth that’s innate to all humans. Something right there, after you strip away your family experiences, see beneath the ideology you’ve learned in whatever culture you were raised in, and question what you were taught a “successful” person is or should be.

Two recent studies are good examples of a core truth: that we’re all interconnected and interdependent for both our survival and thriving in life. Both reveal, in different ways, the human longing for a positive connection and the capacity for kind actions, especially when we see others in need of help. Significantly, these studies show that acting upon both is positive for your mental health.

Acts of kindness

The first, from Ohio State, found that engaging in acts of help and kindness towards others relieves symptoms of anxiety or depression. More so than therapy, even. The study found that performing acts of kindness had a powerful impact on one's feeling connected to others. And as the study’s co-author, David Cregg, pointed out, "Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with well-being.”

How so? The research found that acts of kindness had such a positive effect because they helped people shift their mental focus away from symptoms like anxiety or depression. For example, senior researcher Jennifer Cheavens explained, "We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don't want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that. Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves."

More simply put, a good antidote to depression—or self-pity or just negative thinking about yourself—is to do something that helps someone else. This report from Ohio State describes how the study was conducted. It was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Positive connection with a friend

The other study, though unrelated to Ohio State’s, complements its findings with regard to mental health. It found that just one quality conversation with a friend during the course of your day increases your well-being. It results in your feeling happier and less stressed by the end of the day.

This research from the University of Kansas examined whether particular types of communication—such as meaningful talk, joking around, and showing that you value the other’s opinion—enable people to feel more bonded. And whether that experience of connection and engagement had an impact on people’s feelings of anxiety, well-being, and the overall quality of their day.

The study (described here) found that the particular type of communication didn’t matter. That is, the very act of reaching out to a friend is what mattered most. As co-author Jeffrey Hall explained, “The more that you listened to your friends, the more that you showed care, the more that you took time to value others' opinions, the better you felt at the end of the day.”

And the findings indicated that “…anyone who makes time for high-quality conversation can improve their well-being. We can change how we feel on any given day through communication. Just once is all it takes." The study was published in the journal Communication Research.

Together, these studies underscore a fundamental reality that we’re all interconnected—well-known both from ancient philosophical teachings as well as from current scientific understanding about the nature of the universe. As that quote from the Dalai Lama indicated, our personal well-being is linked with our responsive caring and service to fellow human beings. One cannot exist without the other.

© 2023 Douglas LaBier

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