Stress is one of the more common, yet unfortunate, facets of modern life, but with the festive season upon us, a recent Yale study suggests there may be a way of beating stress that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the occasion.
It suggests that when we help others, be they colleagues, friends or even strangers, it helps to buffer the build up of stress.
“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” the authors say. “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.”
It’s fairly well accepted that having a shoulder to lean on in stressful times can do wonders for our own wellbeing, but the new study suggests that the reverse can also be the case.
“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,” the researchers say. “It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better.”
The health benefits of collaboration
The researchers wanted to build on previous, lab based, studies highlighting the health benefits of helping others and test the hypothesis in real world settings.
Participants were asked to record their feelings and experiences each day over a two week period, with an automated reminder to prompt them to fill in their log each day.
They were asked to log stressful events or experiences they experienced throughout the day, both in terms of number and intensity.
Alongside this stress diary, they were also required to log any helpful encounters or deeds they had been engaged in.
A good deed a day keeps stress away
The results reveal that helping other people goes a long way to boost our emotional well-being. The more people helped other people, the higher their positive emotions and overall mental health was.
What’s more, this helping behavior also seemed to link to how we respond to stress. When people helped others less than usual, they seemed less able to cope with stressful events in their life.
The inverse was also the case, with people who were more helpful than usual reporting better coping mechanisms.
“It was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences,” the researchers say. “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.”
Suffice to say, this is only one small study, and it’s difficult to differentiate whether naturally helpful people are better at coping with stress, or if the act of helping helps to buffer the stress.
This is something the researchers hope to probe further in follow up studies, but it may eventually be the case that prosocial behaviors are prescribed to help tackle stress.