Feel Better About Yourself by Feeling Better About Others
One thing that seems to be in the air today is that good feelings for other people can be in short supply. Whether it’s arguments shooting back and forth from either side of the political divide, snarky comments on Facebook or Youtube, mean and inflammatory tweets, and news sites about one misery or another happening in the world somewhere, it seems like everything is designed to make us all feel prickly, judgmental, and self-focused.
Contrary to this though, a study done by Iowa State University has shown us that improving the feelings we have towards other people may be one of the best ways to improve our own mood. The research team examined several common practices that are intended to improve our feelings for others, and thereby increase our own sense of well-being. Participants in the study took part in one of three techniques.
The technique that the researchers found to be of the most benefit was something called “practicing loving-kindness”. Study participants were instructed to go about their day and look at other people and think “I wish for this person to be happy”. It turns out that walking around and offering kindness to other people in the world around us both reduces our anxiety, and also increases our own feelings of happiness and feelings of social connection. And the best part of this simple strategy is that it doesn’t take any extra time to incorporate into our daily activities.
Another technique was having participants think about the people they passed on the street and consider the ways in which they are connected to each other. For example, what hopes and dreams might we share with a stranger? How might we be similar? And while this strategy was not as effective as loving-kindness, this strategy was also found to increase empathy and create more of a sense of social connection, both of which are vitally important for mental health.
The third technique is something that is sometimes recommended to people in order to help them to feel better about themselves, called “downward social comparison”. This involves thinking about all that we have and all the various ways in which we might be better off than others. The classic example is the old saying “I was sad I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”. While the goal is to help us feel better about ourselves and maybe develop more empathy for others, the study found that the results weren’t actually that great.
Downward social comparison is, at its core, a competitive strategy. And for many people competitive mindsets are linked to stress, anxiety, and depression. Comparisons also make for a risky strategy for emotional well-being, as when it goes the other way it can create emotions like envy, jealousy, anger, and disappointment in ourselves, as well as resentment for others. All of these are things that can seriously disrupt our mental health and emotional state.
Comparing our abilities and resources is a recipe for low self-esteem, and wishing others well and happiness can instead improve it.