Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations

Abstract

Several strategies for decreasing anxiety and increasing subjective well-being have been tested and found to be useful, such as downward social comparison, loving-kindness contemplations, and interconnectedness contemplations. These, however, have not often been directly compared. Emerging adults contemplated one technique for 12 min while walking around a building. Those who wished others well (loving-kindness) had lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness than those in a control condition. The Interconnectedness condition resulted only in beneficial effects on social connection. Although social comparison theory suggests that downward social comparison should improve mood, this study found that it had no beneficial effects relative to the control condition and was significantly worse than the loving-kindness condition. This brief loving-kindness contemplation worked equally well across several measured individual differences, and is a simple intervention that can be used to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy, and feelings of social connection.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, using G-Power test for a four-group ANOVA, fixed effects, omnibus one-way yielded a total sample size of 280 for power = 0.95. Similarly, testing a four-group MANOVA, fixed effects, special, main effects and interactions model yielded a total sample size of 400 for power = 0.95. These were used as a conservative sample size estimate, as t test models yielded somewhat smaller sizes when comparing two groups as our planned comparison approach dictates.

  2. 2.

    Only one interaction out of these 108 achieved statistical significance at the p < .05 level. General Contentedness interacted with the Downward Social Comparison condition, but only for the outcome connectedness. Specifically, moderately content people tended to be more influenced to feel less connected after the downward social comparison intervention.

  3. 3.

    It is somewhat odd that the only significant interactions between high trait mindfulness and condition were on overall life satisfaction, a trait-like global judgment that shouldn’t be highly susceptible to short-term manipulations. Perhaps this means that highly mindful people can shift their global outlook better than others, but if so, why was the interaction only significant for this outcome and not on happiness, anxiety, empathy, etc.? Perhaps this is only a statistical artifact of the total number of interactions tested (120). Future studies could examine this in more depth.

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Correspondence to Douglas A. Gentile.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee, in accordance with American Psychological Association ethical standards, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments. Informed consent was obtained for all participants.

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Gentile, D.A., Sweet, D.M. & He, L. Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations. J Happiness Stud 21, 765–778 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00100-2

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Keywords

  • Happiness
  • Well-being
  • Social comparison
  • Anxiety
  • Intervention