How you think about the people you encounter will alter your well-being throughout the day. In a bad mood? Feeling anxious? Iowa State University psychologists found that thinking well of others can lift your spirits and calm your nerves, whether you realize it or not.

Previous research has shown that what psychologists called “downward social comparison”– seeing yourself as better off than others—can improve your feelings about your own self-worth.  It turns out that having kind and empathetic thoughts about them–what mindfulness practitioners call “loving-kindness”—works a whole lot better.

Putting Loving-kindness to the Test

According to the study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies, four groups of people were told to walk around a building for several minutes until they encountered another person.

Then, depending on their group, each person would think one of the following:

  • “I wish for this person to be happy” and truly mean it. (The loving-kindness group.)
  • about the hopes and feelings they might share with each person. (The interconnected group.)
  • about how they may be better off than each person they encountered. (The downward comparison group.)
  • about what they saw on the outside—the person’s clothing, make up or accessories. (The control group.)

The results were:

  • Loving-kindness thoughts made people feel happier, more connected, caring and empathetic and less anxious.
  • Interconnected thoughts enhanced people’s feelings of empathy and connectedness.
  • Making downward comparisons had no benefits and made people feel less empathetic and connected.

The researchers also report that one’s personality didn’t affect the benefits.  People who are high in narcissism usually want to come off as better than others.   Yet even they were happier and less anxious after practicing loving-kindness than they were after making some downward comparisons.

Personality and Coping Styles

Each personality style comes with characteristic ways of coping.  But as this study shows, there are unexpected ways to change.