Doing something nice for someone else often leaves people feeling good about themselves and positive about their place in the world.
But does that mean practicing random acts of kindness has scientifically proven therapeutic value in treating mood disorders like depression?
According to a growing body of research that has found that "positive activity interventions" –like helping someone with groceries, writing a thank you note or even counting your blessings – can serve as an effective, low-cost treatment for depression.
"They seem really trivial. They seem like, what's the big deal, you feel good for 10 minutes," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who co-authored a recent paper on the topic. "But for a depressed person, they aren't trivial at all. Depressed individuals need to increase positive emotions in their life, even a minute here and there."
After a rigorous review of research on the therapeutic benefits of positive emotion, Lyubomirsky said, she and her colleagues found widespread support for the notion that people with a tendency toward depression can help themselves by helping others or otherwise introducing positivity into their day-to-day lives.
Such a simple, low-cost path to well-being could have big-time implications, given that more than 100 million people worldwide suffer with depression, according to Lyubomirsky's study. That includes more than 16 million US adults, of whom about 70% of reported cases either do not receive enough treatment or do not get treated at all.
Positive activity interventions come in a variety of forms, including:
Being kind to others
Meditating on the good things in life
"The major aspect is the positive emotion," Lyubomirsky said. "The most significant feature of depression is the absence of positive emotion – just a feeling of nothing, of emptiness."
Not only can being positive improve your mood, it can develop into a self-sustaining "upward spiral," she said.
"You might be more approachable to others, or be more creative and imaginative," Lyubomirsky said. "It snowballs, and you are more likely to experience even more positive emotion." For example, your boss might be more likely to compliment you if you are happy in your work, or your husband or wife might be friendlier after an act of kindness.
Dr Michelle Riba, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, a psychiatry professor and associate director of the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, agreed that positivity can have a dramatic effect on people's psychological well-being.
Effects of being positive
"There's a lot of good research that shows these kinds of actions can have a positive impact on life," Riba said. "In general, people who help others stop focusing on their own pains and problems and worries and feel good about themselves."
And perhaps the best thing about it is that people can pursue these positive actions on their own.
"They are simple," Lyubomirsky said. "They don't involve going to a doctor. They aren't a substitute, but they are a great alternative or addition to therapy or medication."
Researchers are still assessing the best ways to pursue and implement positive thought and action to help treat depression, Lyubomirsky and Riba said.
For now, those who want to improve their mood through positivity need to figure out what works best for them through trial and error. This may include thinking long and hard about the best ways they can help others and reminding themselves of the good things in their own lives.
"You have to do work," Lyubomirsky said. "It takes effort to continually remind yourself to do acts of kindness for others, although I think it gets easier over time."
It's also important, she said, to vary your activities, lest you fall into a rut.
"You want to do them in optimal ways," Lyubomirsky said. "You want to vary what you do. You don't want to do the same thing every day. You want to do them at a rate that's optimal to you."
(HealthDay News, Dennis Thompson, January 2012)