When people who are prone to hostility make an effort to engage in acts of kindness toward their close loved ones, it can significantly reduce their depression, according to new research published in the journal, Translational Issues in Psychological Science.
For the study, more than 640 mildly depressed volunteers (average age mid-30s) participated in one of three online compassion training exercises or a control group. The volunteers were asked to complete the instructions and report back via an online platform every other day for three weeks.
Two months later, those participants deemed the most disagreeable showed the most significant reductions in depression and greatest increases in life satisfaction when they performed acts of kindness in close relationships.
Highly disagreeable people often lack empathy, even in their close relationships, says lead author Myriam Mongrain, professor of psychology at York University’s Faculty of Health. But, she points out, “everybody needs people.”
“As a result of their hostility and lack of cooperation, disagreeable types risk getting rejected or ostracized,” says Mongrain. “There is a lot of conflict in their relationships, and they suffer the consequences. We found that providing concrete suggestions to those individuals, giving them ways in which they could express empathic concern in their close relationships was tremendously helpful.”
“Implementing these new behaviours might have left them feeling affirmed and liked in their close social circle. This might have been the anti-depressant ingredient in this group,” she said.
Mongrain says the findings are particularly noteworthy given that the interventions were taken online and only required 10-15 minutes every other day. In other words, the interventions are easy to implement, can be administered anywhere and can have profound effects for some individuals.
In another exercise condition involving Loving Kindness Meditation, participants were asked to spend up to 10 minutes meditating on nurturing phrases such as “May you be happy” or “May you be safe.” While this exercise was found to benefit all of the participants, the researchers found that it was the Acts of Kindness exercise that was most helpful for the disagreeable subgroup.
Researchers say the findings could have immediate practical applications for social scientists, policymakers, psychology researchers, and health practitioners. The widespread application of compassion interventions could contribute to a more humane and kinder society, particularly when targeted at those prone to hostility.
“It’s like at the end of the story of the Grinch,” says Mongrain. “When he took people in they said his heart grew three sizes bigger, and he also became happy. You can’t be an island unto yourself. Sometimes those who are hostile say they don’t need people, but at the end of the day, it does affect mood.”
“People get very drained from disagreements with their spouse for example, so the toll that it takes is not to be minimized. This kind of intervention could be an antidote for those who are lacking in compassion.”
Source: York University