Ohio State Study Reveals the Mental Health Benefits of Doing Good Deeds

Kind acts can improve social connections, which appears to help those suffering from anxiety and depression.

Joy Frank-Collins
Columbus Monthly
An Ohio State study shows the mental health benefits of performing good deeds.

If the people in Columbus seem a little kinder lately, Ohio State University researchers David Cregg and Jennifer Cheavens may have had a hand in it.

The pair are the brains behind a recent study that found that people experiencing a moderate to severe level of anxiety or depression symptoms may find relief and improved life satisfaction by performing acts of kindness. What started as Cregg’s Ph.D. dissertation—for which Cheavens, a professor of psychology at Ohio State, served as his adviser—turned into a manuscript co-authored by the researchers that has been making feel-good headlines across the country, even netting them a recent interview on NBC’s Today show.

So how exactly does “paying it forward” in the Starbucks drive-thru lead to lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression?

Performing acts of kindness can improve social connection, which previous research shows is one of the most important ingredients for well-being in life, Cregg says. The study also suggests that kind acts can reduce the extent that people fixate on other people’s perceptions of them, he adds, enabling study participants to get out of their own heads and stop focusing on their own conditions.

After an initial screening, participants (122 adults from the Columbus area) completed weekly reports and checked in with researchers around the two-week mark. Researchers gave participants tasks that didn’t require a lot of training or assistance from a therapist.

That is unique and important given the mental health crisis in the country, Cheavens says. “There are more people that have symptoms of depression or anxiety or other mental health conditions than there are spots for treatment. So, it’s really imperative as a field, and as psychologists, that we start thinking about other ways to get feasible and effective interventions to people,” she says. “The nice thing about David’s study is that … these are things that they can do without a lot of training or therapy sessions.” (Though the results are promising, the researchers note that acts of kindness are not necessarily a substitute for more traditional treatments and urge people experiencing distress to contact a mental health professional for an evaluation.)

While the study took place over just five weeks, it made an impact. Of the participants tasked with performing acts of kindness, 75 percent reported continuing to do good deeds, like baking cookies for friends or complimenting strangers, after the study concluded.

OSU senior Abby Arntz can attest to the power of kindness. She was given an acts-of-kindness assignment by Cheavens as part of her positive psychology class in 2022. She did three kind acts a day for a week, which, as a socially anxious person, was difficult. But she persevered, holding open doors, doling out compliments and leaving sticky notes bearing positive affirmations in bathrooms across campus. “It helped me realize that even small things can make a difference, not [only] in other peoples’ lives but my own as well,” she says.

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.