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Helping Others to Help Yourself

< Jan. 04, 2012 > -- Practicing random acts of kindness can help you feel good about yourself - and may actually improve depression and other mood disorders.

Photo of older woman giving casserole to another woman

Called "positive activity interventions," acts as seemingly trivial as counting your blessings or writing a thank-you note may serve as an effective, low-cost treatment for depression, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., at the University of California-Riverside.

"For a depressed person, they aren't trivial at all," Dr. Lyubomirsky says. "Depressed individuals need to increase positive emotions in their life, even a minute here and there."

A positive spin

Positive actions can include:

  • Being kind to others

  • Expressing your gratitude

  • Thinking optimistically

  • Meditating on the good things in your life

One advantage to this approach is that people can pursue these actions on their own - without a doctor's prescription.

"They aren't a substitute" for a doctor, Dr. Lyubomirsky says. "But they are a great alternative or addition to therapy or medication."

Effect of change

And focusing on the positive tends to have a snowball effect. Your positive actions often lead to positive actions from others, which then spawn additional positive actions from you.

"You might be more approachable to others, or be more creative and imaginative," Dr. Lyubomirsky says.

Potential impact

Such a simple path to well-being could have a significant impact. More than 16 million U.S. adults suffer from depression, and about 70 percent of reported cases either don't receive enough treatment or don't get treated at all.

Michelle Riba, M.D., a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, agrees that reaching out to others can have a dramatic effect on a person's psychological well-being.

"There's a lot of good research that shows these kinds of actions can have a positive impact on life," Dr. Riba says. "In general, people who help others stop focusing on their own pains and problems and worries and feel good about themselves."

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this website.

How to Change Your Mind

If you tend to count your worries instead of your blessings, it's time for a fresh approach. Here's how to start thinking more positively:

  • Reason with facts, not feelings. Changes in your life can make you feel uncertain and anxious. You may then fear the worst. Instead, step back and get the facts. Talk with your doctor or another expert and find out exactly what you can expect. Then ask yourself, "If this was happening to somebody else, what advice would I give them?"

  • Stay connected. Keep in touch with friends and loved ones, and be open to developing new friendships. Volunteering your time and keeping active in the community will help you focus on others more than yourself.

  • Plan for your happiness. Schedule time for pleasant activities as often as possible. Having something to look forward to will keep your spirits up.

  • Become a problem-solver. Don't just wish problems would go away. Take steps to solve them as quickly as possible, asking for support and help from others.

  • Find the silver lining. Give yourself time to adjust to change or loss. Change can bring new opportunities: Be open to them. Your life won't be the same, but it likely can be better than what you imagine.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Family Physicians - Depression

Mental Health America - Signs of Depression Checklist

National Institute of Mental Health - Depression