People who observe the five precepts of Buddhism may be more resilient to stress and less likely to experience depression, according to the results of a new study. An ethical code of conduct designed to banish suffering and help followers achieve enlightenment, the five precepts may promote inner calm and equanimity, which the researchers say could lead to more general mental health benefits.
According to the study authors, the personality trait neuroticism – which is characterized by a range of negative emotions including anger, anxiety and irritability – represents a major risk factor for depression, especially during times of stress. “A clinically significant depressive symptom is usually attributable to an interaction of the trait of neuroticism with a life stressor,” they say.
On the other hand, the researchers explain that the five precepts of Buddhism have been linked to improvements in useful qualities such as “self-efficacy, resilience [and] equanimity,” all of which may protect against mental anguish. They therefore sought to determine how adherence to these five moral behaviors influences the relationship between neuroticism, stress and depression.
Specifically, the five precepts include refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling bad-intentioned lies, and using intoxicants. Though some of these may sound easy, bear in mind that the restrictions on taking a life apply equally to non-humans, which means that swatting a mosquito counts as an infringement of the code.
To conduct their research, the study authors recruited 644 Thai adults to complete a series of questionnaires, including the Neuroticism Inventory, the Perceived Stress Scale, the Depression Subscale and the Five-Precept Subscale of the Inner Strength-based Inventory.
Results showed that while observing the five precepts did not directly influence the link between neuroticism and depression, it did significantly reduce the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms due to perceived stress. For instance, among participants with low levels of adherence to the precepts, every point on the perceived stress scale was associated with an increase of 0.273 points on the depression scale. On the other hand, those with a high degree of adherence saw their depression scores increase by just 0.157 for every point on the stress scale.
“Observing the Five Precepts offers evidence that it buffers the effect of perceived stress on depression,” write the study authors, adding that “people with high levels of observing the Five Precepts are less likely to develop depressive symptoms.”
And while the study did not seek to identify a cause-effect relationship behind this apparent effect, the researchers speculate that “the mechanism of change of observing the Five Precepts may be similar to equanimity. It might be involved in rendering a calming state of mind and living, and gaining more self-awareness, which would reduce the feeling of stress one is experiencing.”
Furthermore, despite the fact that 93 percent of participants identified as Buddhist, the researchers say that religious beliefs may not be a prerequisite for benefiting from the five precepts. In much the same way that meditation has been reframed as “mindfulness” in order to demystify the concept, the authors insist that the five precepts of Buddhism can be presented as a set of behaviors rather than religious doctrine, thereby rendering the practice more acceptable to non-Buddhists.
The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.