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Buddhism’s Five Precepts Linked to Lower Levels of Stress, Depression, New Study Confirms

Photo by Mattia Faloretti

A new study published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal published by the US-based non-profit Public Library of Science, has underscored the effectiveness of the Buddhist path of skillful conduct in day-to-day life as a key aspect of maintaining and promoting mental and emotional well-being.

The study, conducted in Thailand from late 2019 to September 2022, has demonstrated that people experiencing higher levels of neuroticism and stress have a lower risk of developing depression if they observe the five precepts of Buddhism. And while the outcomes indicated that observing the Five Precepts did not directly influence the link between neuroticism and depression, the researchers shared that it did significantly reduce the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms caused by perceived stress. 

“Observing the Five Precepts offers evidence that it buffers the effect of perceived stress on depression,” the authors stated in their conclusion. “People with high levels of observing the Five Precepts are less likely to develop depressive symptoms. Implications as well as possible future research are discussed.” (PLOS One)

Although the study was small in size, comprising 644 respondents in Thailand, and relied on self-reported outcomes, the authors—researchers led by Nahathai Wongpakaran at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University and Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Budapest—expressed confidence about the broad applicability of their work.

The authors indicated that their study could inform behavioral interventions for mental health wellness in general. They noted that the outcome was in line with a growing body of research that pointed to the growing scientific acceptance of mindfulness and meditation as meaningful tools for psychological well-being, even outside of their original cultural and spiritual context.

“Observing the Five Precepts should be encouraged to practice as mindfulness meditation. Based on Buddhism, it has been suggested to be practiced simultaneously,” the researchers observed. “Even though the Five Precepts [are] from Buddhist ideology, non-Buddhists may adhere to this observance as this self-control behavior seems to make individuals adhering to it be regarded as a ‘no harm and safe’ person for society. It would be interesting to study this issue in a non-Buddhist culture.” (PLOS One)

The researchers in Thailand measured each respondent’s levels of perceived stress, neuroticism, and depression. They compared their findings with how closely each respondent observed the Five Precepts of Buddhism.

The Five Precepts form the foundation of an ethical life and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path toward liberation from suffering for oneself and all beings, according to the Buddhist teaching, with undertakings to:

1. Abstain from taking life
2. Abstain from taking what is not given
3. Abstain from sexual misconduct
4. Abstain from false speech
5. Abstain from indulging in intoxicants

The researchers noted that while their study suggests potential benefits from the Five Precepts in the context of depression, more research would be needed to prove a causal relationship.

“Like resilience or equanimity, observing the Five Precepts is a positive attribute that can be learned or acquired, while neuroticism is a trait that is more likely to be difficult to change,” the researchers explained in their study. “Cultivating the observance of the Five Precepts may change the association between neuroticism, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms.” (PLOS One)

A large proportion of the study participants were female and people who lived alone. The extent of their involvement in Buddhist practice was not detailed, although 93.3 per cent self-identified as Buddhists.

“As hypothesized, observing the Five Precepts can be viewed as a behavioral control requiring many positive attributes to achieve,” the researchers noted. “The Five Precepts are not only a part of the Ten Perfections,* but are also viewed as a constitution of Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Action . . . of the Noble eightfold path, the principal teaching of Buddhism. As mentioned, any attribute is not a standalone. Moral virtue requires a person to have Right View, Right Effort, or Right Mindfulness for successful observance. This implies that a person who is practicing observing the Five Precepts may have elevated levels of their positive mental strength during such periods.” (PLOS One)

Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 93.5 per cent of the nation’s population of 69 million identifying as Buddhists, according to government census data for 2018. The Southeast Asian kingdom has some 38,000 Buddhist temples and almost 300,000 monks. While communities of female renunciants also exist, the monastic authorities in Thailand have never officially recognized the full ordination of women, and bhikkhunis do not generally enjoy the same level of societal acceptance as their male counterparts.

* The Ten Perfections (Skt: paramitas; Pali: paramis): Generosity; Virtue; Renunciation; Discernment; Equanimity; Patience; Persistence; Truthfulness; Determination; Loving-kindesss

See more

Moderating role of observing the five precepts of Buddhism on neuroticism, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms (PLOS One)
Buddhist Precepts Reduce Stress and Buffer Depression: Study (Psychology Today)
Five precepts of Buddhism may be linked to lower depression risk (Science Daily)
Five Precepts of Buddhism May Be Linked to Lower Depression Risk (Neuroscience

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