• Acts of kindness, big or small, have been shown to have a beneficial effect on mental health

  • Psychotherapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen shares recent research on depression and anxiety symptoms

The street where I work, is full of nice local coffee shops. I often slip out between my sessions for an ‘emergency’ coffee. I pass a middle-aged man selling the Big Issue and he smiles. Occasionally I have bought him a coffee so I know he likes a milky coffee with two sugars. Today was very cold and he looked cold. I asked the girl behind the counter of the café to give me an extra coffee for the man outside. She nodded, made the coffee and refused my payment. This was a random act of kindness which lit up my day. I was surprised how touched I felt and cheered. My daily news feed does not usually lift my spirits. 

However, a recent article published in ‘The Journal of Positive Psychology’ mentioned research conducted by David Cregg and Jennifer Cheavens at Ohio State University. Their research confirmed that performing small acts of kindness had proved an effective treatment for moderate to severe depression and anxiety. 

The study involved 122 people who were split into three groups. Two of the groups used techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. One group organised social activities twice weekly and one group used a technique called cognitive reappraisal. 

They had to monitor and question their negative thinking. Both these techniques are well-proven to be helpful for depression. However, the third group were asked to perform three acts of kindness per day for two days a week. The acts could be big or small but should involve some cost to yourself in terms of time, effort or money.  

All the participants in the study, which lasted 10 weeks, showed improvements in their mental health, but the group that performed acts of kindness showed the greatest improvement. The researchers suggested that one reason for this is that acts of kindness create a sense of connection between people. We are relational creatures and feeling ‘part of’ and having a sense of ‘belonging’ is essential to our mental health.  

The person who performs the kind act also can see that they have something to give to another and that offering can make a big effect. Often depression can make us feel worthless and anxiety can overwhelm and shut down alternative, more positive realities. Experiencing something positive both as a giver and receiver helps challenge negativity.

A festival of volunteering has been announced to mark the Coronation of the King Charles. Charities have been asked to take part in a national volunteering initiative on May 8th 2023. Volunteering is a two-way street. It can be of benefit to both the recipients and to those who are volunteering. It is shocking to read that there is less volunteering in deprived areas for a variety of reasons (eg: costs of travel), but given the psychological benefit of being a volunteer then as much effort needs to be put into recruitment as delivery. We all benefit.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

5 things that help me cope with depression

Loneliness, social anxiety, and building good relationships

What actually makes us happy?

What's the cost of being too nice?

What does it mean to belong?