Sunday, August 7, 2011

Acts of random kindness and depression

“One act of random kindness at a time.” (Morgan Freeman to Steve Carell, Evan Almighty)

More than 16 million adults in the USA, approximately eight percent of the population, suffer from either major or chronic depression. The estimate is 100 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. For some, psychopharmacological treatment can be life-saving and the only way to get out of bed and make it through the day. For many others who are clinically depressed, as well as the millions who suffer from milder or more temporary symptoms, a drug-free, inexpensive, effective solution exists – practicing positive activities. This sounds overly-simplistic, but empirical data confirm the efficacy.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Duke University Medical Center, as reported in ScienceDaily on July 28, 2011, studied randomized, controlled interventions with thousands of normal men and women as well as functional MRI scans in people with depressive symptoms. They found that Positive Activity Interventions (PAI) therapy is effective and useful, with the following advantages:
• Benefits those who do not respond to antidepressant medications
• No side effects
• Less expensive to administer
• More rapid improvement of mood symptoms
• Little or no stigma

According to researchers, beneficial positive activities include: performing acts of kindness, practicing optimism, and counting one’s blessings. Two studies specifically tested intentional PAIs in mildly depressed patients and, in one of these, lasting improvements continued to be noticed six months later. The researchers noted that even brief positive activities, which are easy to perform and often inexpensive, can have these lasting effects. Furthermore, short-term PAIs often lead to additional, similar actions, thus compounding the benefits. For example, counting one’s blessings may encourage someone to write a thank you note. Helping someone in need may lead to increased positive social interaction with others, further reducing depression.

Brain imaging studies seem to confirm the studies’ results, leading researchers to theorize that PAIs may boost the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, which have been dampened, thus reversing apathy. This would be a key benefit not usually realized with medication alone. Kristin Layous, the paper’s lead author, remarked “The positive activities themselves aren't really new. After all, humans have been counting their blessings, dreaming optimistically, writing thank you notes, and doing acts of kindness for thousands of years. What's new is the scientific rigor that researchers have applied to measuring benefits and understanding why they work."

“A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22)
“Be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32)
“Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24)

[1] University of California - Riverside. "Restoring happiness in people with depression." ScienceDaily, 28 Jul. 2011. Web. 31 Jul. 2011.