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 TV. Or perhaps you do something healthier like go for a walk or write in a journal. Researchers at Iowa State University found that there’s another simple way to boost your mood and it involves focusing on other people.

For the study, college students walked around a building for 12 minutes and used one of three approaches to lower anxiety and increase happiness.

Loving-kindness: Students were told to look at others and think, “I wish for this person to be happy.” They were encouraged to try to really mean it when they were thinking positive thoughts.

Interconnectedness: In this approach, students looked at others and considered how they may be linked to them. They were encouraged to think about feelings or hopes that they might have in common or something as simple as they might take similar classes.

Downward social comparison: For this, students were instructed to consider how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

A control group was also included in the study where students were told to look at people and focus on what they saw 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. The results of the study were published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Compared to the control group, those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well felt happier, more connected, caring and empathetic and less anxious. The interconnectedness group was more empathetic and connected. The students who compared themselves to others, however, showed no benefits and felt less caring, connected and empathetic than those who wanted others to be happy. 

The researchers were also curious about how people with different personalities would react to the different strategies. For example, they thought people who were narcissistic might have a difficult time wishing happiness on others. They expected that people who tended to be more mindful might benefit from using the loving-kindness technique. They were surprised by what they found. Extending loving kindness to others worked equally well regardless of personality type to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy, and feelings of social connection.

There were limitations to the study, such as the sample was Midwestern college student, so it is unclear how these results would apply to other people. However, the next time you’re sad or angry, consider thinking kind thoughts towards others. It’s a great way to spend 12 minutes and may help you feel better.

Resource: 

Gentile, D., Sweet, D., and He, L. (2019). Caring for others cares for the self: An experimental test of brief downward social comparison, loving‑kindness, and interconnectedness contemplations. Journal of Happiness Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00100-2