A research team headed by psychology professor Douglas Gentile examined several common practices intended to improve our feelings about others and thereby increase our own sense of well-being. Participants in his study, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, that is a real thing!), took part in one of three techniques.
The technique that proved to be most beneficial is called “practicing loving-kindness.” Study participants were instructed to go through their day looking at other people and thinking, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Explains Gentile, “Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection. It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”
Another technique the team had participants try was to consider the people they passed and think about how they are connected to each other. What hopes and feelings might we share with a stranger? How are we similar? While not as effective as loving-kindness, this strategy was found to increase empathy and create more of a sense of social connection, which is so important for mental health.
A third technique is sometimes recommended to help people feel better about themselves—”downward social comparison,” in which we think about all that we have and how we might be better off than others. The classic example is “I was sad that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” The goal is to help us feel better about ourselves and perhaps more empathy for others—but in the ISU study, the results weren’t so good.
“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” explained study co-author Dawn Sweet. “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 noted that today’s ways of communicating make comparisons a “risky strategy” for emotional well-being. “Social media is a playground for comparisons—he makes more money than I, or she has a nicer car,” noted the team. “It is almost impossible to not to make comparisons on social media. 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.”
This study used college students as the test subjects, but the results would no doubt also be very relevant for older adults. No matter what we do to take care of our health or plan for the future, time deals with us in different ways. Comparing our abilities and resources with those of others is a recipe for low self-esteem and anxiety. Wishing others well instead can improve our sense of well-being.