Playing Mahjong May Help Treat Depression

What if a game could improve your mental health?

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 10, 2020

As grateful as I am for medication and therapy, sometimes it doesn’t always cut it when treating my depression. It’s during these periods that I’m on the lookout for other potential treatments — especially ones that don’t come with any side effects. That’s why I was so intrigued by new research from the University of Georgia (UGA), which found that playing mahjong improve our mental health.

This particular study focused on elderly people living in China. Not only does China represent 17 percent of the global disease burden of mental disorders, but increased social isolation among the older population is only getting worse, according to the study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. “Global economic and epidemiologic trends have led to significant increases in the burden of mental health among older adults, especially in the low- and middle-income countries,” Zhuo “Adam” Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health and study co-author, said in a statement.

The researchers used a large data set with information on more than 11,000 retired Chinese adults, and found that participating in social activities improved people’s mental health. Specifically, older people who live in urban areas and played mahjong — a tile-based game of strategy — were less likely to be depressed. Residents of rural areas, on the other hand, did not fare as well when it came to their mental health.

“Traditionally, rural China featured tight-knit communities of close kinship, often with a limited number of extended large families in a village,” Chen said. “We were expecting strong ties and communal bonds in rural China, but it appears that we were wrong.”   

Unfortunately, mahjong didn’t seem to have the same impact on rural-dwelling people. “One hypothesis is that mahjong playing tends to be more competitive and at times become a means of gambling in rural China,” Chen noted. 

So no, mahjong isn’t a magical silver bullet depression cure, but this research does provide some clues into why certain treatments work for some people and not others, which is a step in the right direction.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.


Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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