Being Kind in Close RelationshipsReduces Depression

Being Kind in Close Relationships Reduces Depression

There has been increasing interest in the benefits of being kind, which include improved self-esteem, happiness, and greater overall mental-health. Practicing kindness has also been shown to strengthen relationships and increase social support, both of which can inoculate individuals from emotional distress and depression. The current study examined the effects of a kindness exercise within close relationships. Participants were recruited online and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Participants in the kindness condition performed a kind, loving gesture towards someone close, while participants in the control condition simply wrote about an interaction they had with someone close. Multilevel modeling revealed that the kindness intervention was associated with significant decreases in depressive symptoms when compared to the control condition, with gains that were maintained at the two month follow-up. These results suggest that practicing kindness within the context of a close relationship can lead to sustained improvements in depression.

Caroline Barnes, B.A. Myriam Mongrain, Ph.D. Ryan Barnhart, M.A.
Method Hypothesis
Practicing kindness within the context of close relationships should strengthen these relationships and enhance social support, as well as foster the character strength of kindness. Consequently, it is expected that participants in the kindness condition will see significant decreases in depressive symptoms in comparison to those in the control condition.

Participants: Participants were recruited online worldwide (N = 364) and were required to be over the age of 18 and have daily access to the Internet. The mean age of participants was 32.34 (SD = 11.19) and 66% were female. Participants presented with a mean baseline score of 22.1 (SD = 13.15) on the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977), indicating symptoms of clinical significance. Procedure:  Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions.  Participants in the kindness condition (n = 172) performed a kind act for someone they were close with and described the interaction they had.  Participants in the control condition (n = 192) described an interaction they had with someone close that day.  These exercises were repeated every second day for three weeks with participants completing their exercises online. Participants completed the CES-D immediately prior to the exercise period, at post-test three weeks later, and at one and two month follow-ups. Data analysis: Multilevel modeling (MLM) was used to assess the effect of the kindness condition on depression and to determine if changes in depression were sustained over time. MLM was chosen due to the high level of attrition and the nested structure of the data.


 Kindness, described as the inclination to be kind and compassionate towards others, has been identified in the positive psychology literature as a globally-valued strength of character (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Practicing kindness has been shown to improve self-esteem and increase positive moods (Krause & Shaw, 2000; Mongrain, Chin, & Shapira, 2010; Simmons, 1991).  Performing kind acts has the potential to benefit depression. Disruptions in one’s interpersonal context are linked to the occurrence and maintenance of depression (Joiner, Coyne, & Blalock, 1999). Practicing compassion within relationships has been shown to produce supportive interpersonal environments and strengthen relationships (Crocker & Canevello, 2008), which could prevent or repair dysfunctional relationship dynamics.  Participants in the kindness condition saw a significant decrease in depressive symptoms due to the kindness intervention when compared to the control condition (Estimate = -.33, SE = .10, z = -2.40, p = .02).  These decreases in depressive symptoms were maintained over time up to the two month follow-up (Estimate = -.08, SE = .04, z = -2.00, p = .04).

 Practicing kindness within close relationships can decrease depression, with gains up to two months following the intervention.  Cultivating close relationships is important for depressed individuals, whose symptoms are often exacerbated or maintained by dysfunctional interpersonal contexts.  This type of online intervention offers an effective, accessible, and convenient alternative to more traditional methods of delivery.

Crocker, J., & Canevello, A. (2008). Creating and undermining social support in communal relationships: The role of compassionate and self-image goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 555-575. Joiner, T., Coyne, J. C., & Blalock, J. (1999). In Joiner T., Coyne J. C. (Eds.), On the interpersonal nature of depression: Overview and synthesis. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. Krause, N., & Shaw, B.A. (2000). Giving social support to others, socioeconomic status, and changes in self-esteem in late life. Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 55B, S323-333. Mongrain, M., Chin, J. & Shapira, L. B. (2010). Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 963-981. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: a handbook and classification. APA Press: Washington, DC. Radloff, L. (1977). The CES-D Scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385-401.

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