New research from Iowa State University says that the secret to happiness is simple: wish others well.

Be kind.

Image via Pixabay.

We all have bad days, or just bad times. Each of us also has his or her own way to cope with such times and get a shot of feel-good chemicals. However, new research says that we shouldn’t focus on something we can eat, drink, or do to make ourselves feel better — instead, we should focus on wishing others well.

The best gift is giving

“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.

“It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

Together with co-authors Dawn Sweet, senior lecturer in psychology; and Lanmiao He, a graduate student in psychology, Gentile put three techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being to the test. The team worked with a group of college students at Iowa State, who they asked to walk around a building for 12 minutes while practicing one of the following strategies:

  • Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
  • Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
  • Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

The researchers also set aside a number of students who acted as a control group. They were asked to do the same activity as the other three groups, but the activity they were asked to perform consisted of looking at other people and focusing on what they saw on the outside — clothing, the combination of colors, textures, makeup, accessories, that sort of thing.

All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy, and connectedness. Each technique was then compared against the control group to gauge how effective it was in reducing anxiety and promoting well-being.

The interconnectedness group reported feeling more empathetic and socially connected to those around them, the team reports. Those in the downward social comparison group didn’t see any improvement in mood or happiness (this group had the worst results among all groups). Those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well saw an increase in happiness, felt more connected, caring, and empathetic, as well as less anxious — by far the most successful group in the study.

These results go against the grain of previous research which found that downward social comparison can act as a buffer against feelings of personal inadequacy by boosting positive feelings. Students who compared themselves to others in the present study felt less empathetic, caring, and connected than students who extended well wishes to others, which takes a toll on our wellbeing, the team explains.

“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” Sweet said. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The team also investigated whether different personality archetypes reacted differently to this technique. They expected to see naturally-mindful people reaping the biggest rewards from the loving-kindness strategy, or that some narcissistic personalities would have trouble genuinely wishing others well. They didn’t.

“This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” Lanmiao He said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”

The team says we can all benefit from these findings, especially in a social-media dominated world. It’s easy to start comparing yourself to others in such an environment, they explain. Drawing comparisons isn’t a bad thing in itself, Gentle explains, adding that “as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours.” But in terms of how much it fosters happiness, comparisons can’t hold a candle to loving-kindness.

“It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile said. “Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”

The paper “Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations” has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies

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