Wishing Happiness for Others Makes Well-Wishers Happier, Too

 Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Source: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Taking a 12-minute walk in a public space and thinking to yourself “I wish for this person to be happy” every time you see a passerby may be a surprisingly easy way to make yourself feel better, according to a new study by researchers from Iowa State University. This paper, “Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations,” was published online March 21 in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Although this study doesn’t reference Eastern walking meditation rituals commonly referred to as “kinhin,” the practice of walking while contemplating thoughts of loving-kindness has a long and rich history that dates back centuries. Generally speaking, zazen is considered "seated" meditation and kinhin is "walking" meditation.

The new study from ISU offers some fresh empirical evidence supporting the benefits of walking meditation that includes loving-kindness which can be corroborated anecdotally by those who practice LKM-based kinhin. (For more on loving-kindness meditation (LKM) see here , here , here .)

"Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection," first author Douglas Gentile said in a statement. "It's a simple strategy that doesn't take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities."

For this study, Gentile and colleagues recruited college students and had them walk around a building on campus for 12 minutes while walkers practiced one of three different types of contemplation:

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

  1. Loving-Kindness Contemplation: Students were encouraged to adopt a "well-wisher" mindset and genuinely think positive thoughts of loving-kindness about each person they saw on their walk. They were also told to recite this eight-word mantra to themselves each time they saw a stranger or passerby: "I wish for this person to be happy."
  2. Interconnectedness Contemplation:This cohort of study participants were instructed to observe each passerby on their walk and to think about specific commonalities they might share. The college students were asked to speculate about similar hopes and aspirations they might have in common with each person they observed while walking.
  3. Downward Social Comparison: During this exercise, the study participants were instructed to observe each passerby during their walk and to think about ways they might be better off in comparison to each person they encountered during the 12-minute walk.

Before taking a 12-minute walk, study participants were surveyed to assess a baseline of anxiety, stress, happiness, and feelings of connectedness. Additionally, a control group was surveyed and instructed to observe outward appearances of people they saw while walking but weren't given any instructions about specific contemplation or thinking processes.

After comparing the outcome of the three different contemplation cohorts and the control group, the researchers found that well-wishing walkers who practiced the loving-kindness contemplation and said to themselves "I wish for this person to be happy" each time they saw someone reaped the most benefits.

“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 authors wrote in the paper’s abstract.

Ask your children three "you" questions every day. The art of conversation is an important social skill, but parents often neglect to teach it. Get a kid going with questions like, "Did you have fun at school?"; "What did you do at the party you went to?"; or "Where do you want to go tomorrow afternoon?"

As might be expected, those in the “interconnectedness group” showed an uptick in feelings of social connectedness but the researchers didn't observe any other benefits associated with this contemplation style.

Notably, the "downward social comparison" cohort fared significantly worse than those who practiced loving-kindness contemplation. In comparison to well-wishers, college students who compared themselves to others while taking a 12-minute walk tended to be less empathetic, less happy, and felt less connected. As the authors explain:

“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."

Walking LKM Creates the Ultimate Win-Win-Win

This walking LKM prescriptive offers three wins: First, you'll be getting over ten minutes of physical activity. Second, you'll be projecting warm-hearted loving-kindness to others. Third, you'll make yourself feel happier, less stressed , and more connected in the process.

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One of the most encouraging aspects of the new study (Gentile et al., 2019) on the benefits of a 12-minute walking loving-kindness meditation is how easy it is to incorporate this intervention into daily life and to create an upward spiral for all parties involved.

The walking LKM Rx is simple: The next time you take a break from work or are out for a walk in a public space, try spending 12 minutes sending kind and loving thoughts to others and reciting these eight words to yourself each time you see a stranger: "I wish for this person to be happy."