If you want to reduce the effects of daily stress on your emotions and outlook, be of service to others. That’s the finding of a study that tested how small, helpful gestures throughout the day provide a significant boost against the negative impacts of stress.
The results were significant–the more helpful behaviors performed each day, the higher the level of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health. Although the results relied on self-reporting, the correlation between behavior and reported emotional experience was strong.
The study included 77 adults, ages 18 to 44, who participated in a daily assessment via their smartphones for two weeks.
Once a day they reported any stressful events they experienced at work or home, or related to relationships, finances or health
They also reported all of the helpful behaviors they engaged in during the day (even small gestures like holding open a door), and they completed a 10-item Positive and Negative Affect Scale, a well-validated measure of experienced emotion. They were also asked to rate their mental health for each day using a sliding scale that ranged from 0 (poor) to 100 (excellent).
“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” said lead-study author Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine.
our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”
Participants who reported lower levels of helping behaviors showed less resilience to daily stressors, evidenced by lower levels of positive emotion and lower self-evaluations of mental health. It seems that helping others not only improves your mood, but also provides a layer of emotional protection.
While there are a number of possible reasons for this effect, one that seems likely is that helping someone may trigger the release of endorphins (our bodies’ natural opiates produced in the central nervous system and pituitary gland). Feeling good about doing a little something for someone else releases a little “feel good” in the blood stream.
The takeaway–don’t let opportunities to help others throughout the day pass you by. Each one isn’t just a chance to help someone else, but also represents a boost to your personal stress defense.