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How Buddhism Could Help Lower Depression Risk

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in ancient India. One of the key principles of Buddhism is the Five Precepts, which are ethical guidelines for living a virtuous life. Adhering to these precepts is believed to lead to the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, and ultimately to the attainment of enlightenment. The Five Precepts are considered the foundation of Buddhist morality and are taken by lay followers as well as monastic practitioners. They are not considered commandments but rather guidelines to be taken voluntarily, and are meant to be practiced with flexibility and understanding.

A study suggests that engaging in moral practices may counteract the association between high stress levels and depression.

According to a study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, individuals with high levels of neuroticism and stress may be more susceptible to depressive symptoms. However, the research suggests that following the five precepts of Buddhism may mitigate this risk. The study was conducted by Nahathai Wongpakaran and colleagues at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

Previous studies have shown that adhering to the five precepts of Buddhism, which include not killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, telling lies, or using intoxicants, can improve the well-being and quality of life for both serious and non-serious followers. However, it was not clear until now if these precepts could also alleviate depressive symptoms for those at a higher risk.

To address this question, Wongpakaran and colleagues focused on known links between neuroticism, stress, and depression. Prior research has shown that greater neuroticism is associated with a greater risk of depression, both directly as well as indirectly through perceived stress—how people think and feel after stressful life events.

From late 2019 through September 2022, the researchers conducted an online survey of 644 adults in Thailand. The survey included standard questionnaires to measure each participant’s levels of perceived stress, neuroticism, and depressive symptoms, as well as their observance of the five precepts of Buddhism.

Statistical analysis of the survey results showed that observing the five precepts to a high degree appeared to buffer the influence of perceived stress on depression. These results suggest that people with high levels of neuroticism and stress may be less likely to develop depressive symptoms if they follow the five precepts closely.

The researchers note that, while their study suggests potential benefits for the five precepts in the context of depression, it does not confirm a cause-effect relationship. A large proportion of participants were female and people who lived alone, and participants’ religious involvement was unknown, although 93.3% reported that they were Buddhist. More research will be needed to determine whether these findings might extend to the general population of Thailand and beyond, as well as to non-Buddhists.

The authors add: “The five precepts practice makes other people feel safe, as all these behaviors are harmless, and it potentially provides the stressful practitioner with a buffer against depression.”

Reference: “Moderating role of observing the five precepts of Buddhism on neuroticism, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms” by Nahathai Wongpakaran, Phurich Pooriwarangkakul, Nadnipa Suwannachot, Zsuzsanna Mirnics, Zsuzsanna Kövi and Tinakon Wongpakaran, 30 November 2022, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0277351

The study was funded by the Faculty of Medicine Research Fund of Chiang Mai University. 



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