Mahjong is no longer just a means to teach crazy rich Asian mothers that prejudice can cost you your child’s happiness. As it turns out, the tile-based strategy game can also help adults struggling with symptoms of depression.
That’s according to a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, which shows that a regular game of Mahjong can help reduce rates of depression among middle-aged and older adults in China. Those who reside in urban areas particularly found it beneficial.
Originating from the Qing Dynasty, mahjong was originally called “máquè,” meaning “sparrow,” because the clacking of tiles in the shuffling process supposedly resembles the sound of chattering sparrows. The game began to spread across the world in the early 20th century, developing variations over time.
In essence, mahjong is a game of strategy that involves some chance. The goal is to get all of one’s 14 tiles into four sets (a set being three identical tiles or a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit, which can be characters, bamboos or circles) and one pair (two identical tiles).
Researchers of the study said that global economic and epidemiological changes have led to “significant increases” in the burden of mental health among older adults, particularly those who live in low- and middle-income countries. One basis of the study is the role of social participation in mental health.
“Our paper provides evidence on the association between social participation and mental health in the context of a developing country (China),” co-author Adam Chen, an associate professor of health policy and management from the University of Georgia, said in a press release. “We also examined the rural-urban difference, which has not been examined extensively in this line of literature.”
Chen, along with collaborators from China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology, analyzed data from about 11,000 residents aged 45 and above from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study, a national survey. They reviewed symptoms of depression and compared it to the type and frequency of social participation, or activities such as visiting friends, joining a sports club, volunteering in the community, and playing mahjong.
They found out that more frequent participation in a wide variety of activities is linked to better mental health. Urban residents who played mahjong, in particular, were less likely to be depressed.
Interestingly, the researchers discovered that rural residents generally reported poor mental health. Chen believes that this is due to the trend of able-bodied adults moving to urban areas for work, weakening community structures at home.
“What is more surprising is that mahjong playing does not associate with better mental health among rural elderly respondents,” Chen added. “One hypothesis is that mahjong playing tends to be more competitive and at times become a means of gambling in rural China.”
The researchers believe their findings can help guide health practitioners in designing interventions to improve mental health among older Chinese people. They may also be of help to older Asian Americans, Chen said.
“Older Asian Americans have a much higher proportion of suicidal thoughts than whites and African Americans. Improving social participation among older Asian Americans may help to address this burden to the U.S. population health that has not received due attention.”
However, mahjong has become increasingly more popular not only among Asian Americans.
“My members, most of them are from Manhattan, and I’d say the majority of them are from the Upper East Side, but I’ve got West-siders, I have a few people from Brooklyn,” Linda Feinstein, organizer of the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club, told China Daily. “I have a group that comes in from Beverly Hills every single year for 10 days, and they play mahjong on one of the Mondays.”
Among other celebrities that play mahjong is actress Julia Roberts.
“I play mahjong with my girlfriends once a week,” she told Stephen Colbert last year. “The concept of it is to create order out of chaos based on a random drawing of tiles.”
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