If you are depressed or feeling down, there is a surprisingly simple remedy - 'paying it forward'. This is a kindness initiative that is sweeping the globe and involves performing random acts of kindness for other people without the expectation that they pay it back - instead they are asked to 'pay it forward' by doing something nice for someone else.
I see a lot of depressed people at my Clinic and I have begun to encourage them to see kindness as therapy. In my new book, Paying it Forward: How One Cup of Coffee Could Change the World(HarperTrue Life), I explain how kindness makes us happy. Performing acts of kindness has consistently been shown to be related to being more satisfied with life; for example, a Japanese study in 2006 showed that kind people experience more happiness and have happier memories than less kind people. If you were to perform five kind acts every week, after six weeks you would most likely feel happier than had you not performed these acts (try it!).
Research has shown that as well as performing acts of kindness, our mental well-being can be enhanced by noting and counting these good deeds at the end of each week. This could be because being kind makes us value ourselves as good people and thus makes us feel more positive; by counting our acts of kindness in a week, we are reminding ourselves about how nice we are and thus we are able to enhance our own self-esteem. This is why I ask my depressed clients to keep a journal of good deeds. Even the thought of helping others makes us happier and there are physiological reasons for this; brain scans show that just thinking about helping activates the mesolimbic pathway in the brain which produces the feel-good chemical dopamine.
For people who are feeling low, I find that performing good deeds can have the following effects beyond those mentioned above:
- It allows them to give to others and thus contribute to society. Depressed people often tell me that they feel worthless and that they do not do anything useful. Helping others out is the perfect antidote to these feelings. It is impossible to still feel worthless when you have performed a kind deed and seen the impact you have made on someone else's life.
- It allows them to be the giver instead of the receiver. Depressed people are often in the habit of being on the receiving end of help, advice and input which can make them feel indebted and uncomfortable. Giving back redresses the balance and thus enhances self-esteem.
- Performing kind acts means that the depressed person needs to get back into society - it is hard to be kind if you don't interact with people. Depressed people are often socially isolated or withdrawn so this is a way to increase their involvement with others.
The great thing about being kind is that everyone can do it; you don't need to be rich or have any special skills. In fact, as research for my book, I set myself a two week Pay It Forward challenge whereby each act of kindness had to cost me less than the price of the book (99p for download!). I let people in front of me in the supermarket, gave out pound umbrellas in the rain, handed out free chocolates, left inspirational messages on car windscreens, left pre-loved books on park benches and paid for people's parking. And it felt good!
Even better, why not give volunteering a go? There are a multitude of opportunities from helping in a charity shop, volunteering at your child's school or cheering up residents of a local care home. Research shows that volunteering is super-good for our health; elderly volunteers who helped out for more than four hours per week were 44 per cent less likely to die during the course of the study than those who didn't. And a study that followed 427 married women over a period of 30 years found that 52 per cent of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness - compared with only 36 per cent who did volunteer.
How does being kind make us healthier? One theory is that it increases our mental well-being by lowering the amount of stress hormones we produce. Evidence for this theory comes from a study in Miami of patients with HIV, which showed that the more altruistic patients had lower levels of stress hormones. In another study, older adults who volunteered to give a massage to babies also had lowered stress hormones.
So, being kind makes you feel good, boosts your self-esteem, reduces your stress - and helps you live longer. What are you waiting for?!