What do you do when you're in a bad mood? Maybe you grab a bowl of ice cream or plop down in front of the TV. Or perhaps you do something healthier like go for a walk or write in a journal.

Researchers at Iowa State University found that there's another simple way to boost your mood and it involves making other people feel better.

"Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection," said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology, 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 the study, Gentile and his team had college students walk around a building for 12 minutes and practice one of three different techniques designed to lower anxiety and increase happiness.

Loving-kindness — Students were told to look at the people they see and think to themselves, "I wish for this person to be happy." They were encouraged to try to really mean it when they were thinking positive thoughts.

Interconnectedness — Students in this group looked at the people they saw and thought about how they might be linked to each other. They were encouraged to think about any feelings or hopes that they might have in common or something as simple as they might take similar classes.

Downward social comparison — Here, students were told to think about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

Researchers also included a control group of students in the study. They were told to walk around and just look at what they saw on the outside when they looked at people. They focused on their clothing, accessories and makeup. Students in all groups were surveyed before and after their 12-minute walk to measure their levels of anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy and connectedness. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Kindness is the answer

students on campus Students who wished happiness for others had higher levels of well-being than those who compared themselves to the people they met. (Photo: 4 PM production/Shutterstock)

When the researchers compared the three techniques with members of the control group who only focused on appearance, they found that those who practiced loving-kindness and wished for people to be happy felt happier themselves. They well less anxious and felt more connected, caring and empathetic.

The group that looked for ways they might be connected to others was more empathetic and connected. The students who compared themselves to others, however, showed no benefits and felt less caring, connected and empathetic than those who wanted others to be happy.

The researchers were also curious about how people with different personalities would react to the different strategies. For example, they thought people who were narcissistic might have a difficult time wishing happiness on others. They expected that people who tended to be more mindful might benefit from using the loving-kindness technique. They were surprised by what they found.

"This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type," graduate student in psychology Lanmiao He said. "Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection."

The next time you're cranky and reaching for a candy bar, you may just want to think kind thoughts instead. It's a great way to spend 12 minutes.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

How to improve your mood in 12 minutes
A simple strategy of kindness can help improve your mood in just a few minutes.