Offering a helping hand to others, especially during the holidays, can improve our health by reducing the negative effects of stress. Study author, Dr. Emily Ansell, said, “Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves. Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but 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.”
When we are stressed, it is normal to reach out to others for support; on the other hand, reaching out to help others can also reduce our stress and tame everyday worries. Dr. Ansell added, “The holiday season can be a very stressful time, so think about giving directions, asking someone if they need help, or holding that elevator door over the next month. It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better.”
The researchers had participants report their feelings and emotions on smartphones. There were 77 participants who recorded their feelings over the course of 14 days.
The smartphones prompted a daily task that needed to be completed, and participants were also asked to report their daily emotions and stress levels. Furthermore, they were asked to report on any helpful behavior they had completed that day, such as holding a door open or helping a person with any work. Lastly, participants answered a 10-item short-form of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale where they rated their mental well-being for the day using a slider scale from zero to 100.
The results showed that those who helped people had better mental health and responded better to stress. Those who reported less helpful behavior had reduced mental well-being, along with a poorer response to stress. Overall, the researchers found the more helpful a person was to others, the greater the protection they got from stress effects.
“It was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences. For example, if a participant did engage in more prosocial behaviors on stressful days there was essentially no impact of stress on positive emotion or daily mental health. And there was only a slight increase in negative emotion from stress if the participant engaged in more prosocial behaviors,” Dr. Ansell added.
The researchers suggest additional studies needs to be conducted to see if the relationship holds true among different races and ethnicities, and if an increase in helping behavior can work to improve mental health. Dr. Ansell concluded, “This would help clarify whether prescribing prosocial behaviors can be used as a potential intervention to deal with stress, particularly in individuals who are experiencing depressed mood or high acute stress.”