Are acts of kindness better than therapy, though?

Research has suggested that performing a nice charitable deed is better for helping depression than therapy. We’ve done some investigating.

Hero image in post
photo: Lady and the Tramp, 1955, Walt Disney Animation Studios
Hero image in post
photo: Lady and the Tramp, 1955, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Research has suggested that performing a nice charitable deed is better for helping depression than therapy. We’ve done some investigating.

By Rhys Thomas10 Feb 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

You always have time for people. You open the door for strangers, you let people on the bus first. When you’re able to, you give a homeless person money, or buy them food. You do this because you’re a nice person, sure, but it also makes you feel good, doesn’t it?

A recent study claimed that performing acts of kindness led to better improvements in depression and anxiety than two of the main therapeutic techniques used. The paper, by PhD student David Cregg and Professor of Psychology Jennifer Cheavens, of Ohio State University was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. And then the simplistic headlines arrived: Acts of kindness ‘can be better than therapy’ for depression and anxiety; Want To Feel Less Depressed? Try an Act of Kindness; and so on.

And this isn’t the first time this idea has been put forward. In her book 'Esteemable acts’, Francine D Ward explains that “Self-esteem comes from behaving in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, which means being mindful of how you treat yourself and how you treat others.” The idea is we exist as ourselves and in relation to others, and that being kind to ourselves and to others will, all round, make us better humans. The effects of an improved self-esteem include, “better social relationships, improved mental and physical health, and less anti-social behaviour. And, these benefits persist from adolescence to adulthood and into old age.” According to an article from the University of California.

In recent British history, there’s been systemic pushes for acts of kindness, like when former Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for the Big Society, where “people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.”

This theory ran on the assumption that individuals doing kind stuff on a day-to-day could make up for the lack of governmental kind stuff. At its worst, it resulted in the farcical ‘Clean for the Queen’ scheme aimed at cleaning up Britain ahead of the Queen’s 90th Birthday, and at best, people came out in droves to volunteer for the NHS during the pandemic, as well as supporting vulnerable people by following the rules (that many in our government didn’t) to stop the spread of the virus. In the latter case, though, people felt their social contract was with each other and the NHS rather than to their government or ruler.

However, regardless of whether you feel you owe the government or… the head of state, no one can get out and about carrying some bags for an old lady if they’re clinically depressed.

When I was 21, I had a course of CBT around the time that I was coming out of a long period of depression and had previously been on SSRIs and other antidepressants. When I was better (a change which almost happened overnight in the end, somehow) I found I was being more charitable.

I was offering to buy drinks, buying food for homeless people, actively making a point of being generous where I could with my time, too. Since then, this has morphed into me mentoring people within my industry as part of Arts Emergency, a network that helps young people to find guidance from people within the arts and humanities sector. I suppose I started doing this because I saw that even though I’ve experienced being in a position where it feels like the world is against me, and that nothing can help, now I know that small gestures of kindness go a long way. You can make someone’s day, or inspire them, or help them. And if you can, I figure, why wouldn’t you?

Well, when I was in a bad way, this wasn’t the outlook I had. The NHS website details psychological, physical and social symptoms for depression, including “having no motivation or interest in things”, “finding it difficult to make decisions”, “lack of energy”, and “avoiding contact with friends and taking part in fewer social activities”. Hardly the formula for going out there and trying to change the world through acts of kindness, is it?

Hansa Pankhania, a wellbeing consultant and author registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), says “kindness is likely to help with mild depression and anxiety, as opposed to clinical depression. Depression can be anything from feeling low for a few weeks to clinical depression leading to suicidal thoughts and actions.”

The study found that depression seemed to reduce quicker when people performed acts of kindness as opposed to solely deploying techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) over a ten week period. So the researchers did focus on people with moderate to severe forms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Yet it isn’t clear that the experiment had any particular effect on people with severe depression. In those cases “the patient may not have the inclination to be kind to others, let alone kind to themselves, which would be the first step towards their recovery,” Pankhania adds.

Though the group of people tested was small (122 people in central Ohio) and the CBT wasn’t a full course, merely a series of CBT techniques. This means that really, the small group of participants were being tested on acts of kindness versus some aspects of therapy, not actual therapy over a relatively short period of time.

We might not know for sure that acts of kindness can improve depression, but fortunately, what we do know is that for some people acts of kindness are helpful! But who can they help, and how can you use acts of kindness in order to feel good?

Pankhania says “we are actually hard-wired to be kind. Kindness can positively change your brain”. Neurologically, being kind can boost oxytocin – the feel-good hormone, which increases self-esteem and optimism. It’s also the hormone released after sex that makes you want to have a cuddle. Kindness can also increase endorphins in your body, which ease pain and increase energy. It also boosts serotonin and dopamine levels. “This, along with decreased levels of cortisol, helps reduce stress and anxiety and can lift your mood” Pankhania adds, citing a 1998 paper which said “relatively inexpensive interventions may dramatically and positively impact individuals' health and wellbeing…individuals may have greater control over their minds, bodies and health than previously suspected.”

When acts of kindness aren’t forced, and used alongside other, professionally accredited long-term therapeutic tools, these good deeds seemingly go a long way to making people feel better. Jon, 25, has experienced regular bouts of anxiety throughout his life. He volunteers at Street Kitchen, a grassroots group “working to help the homeless community, providing daily outreaches with food, clothing and information”. He says that “if you feel sad and angry at the state of the world, it feels better to go out there and try to make an impact, because at least you can say you're trying.” When depression or anxiety is tied to the state of the world, as Jon mentions, he also thinks “it's wrong to ignore the material forces that give you shit pay shit jobs and shit dating prospects”.

In essence, acknowledging things are stacked up against you sometimes, and looking to be kind despite that, can be a liberating and peace-providing way to live. Say you were worried about climate change, as 83% of Gen Z are. Jon would feel the benefit of trying to make a difference there, too.

As well as taking up ad hoc opportunities from going about your day to day, volunteering is a more organised example and many workplaces offer volunteering days as part of their employee wellness programmes. There are organisations such as Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, whose website provides ideas of how to be kind in school, at work, and at home.

And if you do things for others to be kind, as Pankhania says, you will get kindness in return “kindness can help to address the milder aspects of anxiety and depression. It helps reduce stress, brings a fresh perspective and deepens friendships.”

Within this, though, we should do our best to be mindful of our personal capacities for being able to help people, too. Sometimes, we have more space in our lives to do kind things than at other times. This is normal, we don’t want to start feeling a pressure to do our good deeds, guilt for not doing them, or resentment and burnout for doing them despite having literally no time at all to do so. You have to be kind to yourself, too.

So if you can, it’s worth a go, don’t you think?