What’s the best thing to do for ourselves when we’re having a lousy day? Results from a recent study suggest that we should consider doing something nice for someone else.
Participants in the study received text messages that prompted them to record that day's stressful events as well as the "prosocial behaviors" they did—things like asking if a person needs assistance or holding the door for someone. They also rated their positive and negative emotions as well as their overall mental health for the day.
Not surprisingly, higher levels of stress on a given day were linked to more negative emotions and worse mental health. The study also found that people who generally do more for others tend to have more positive emotions (and vice versa).
The crucial question the study addressed was this: When we’re having a particularly stressful day, what is the effect of increasing our helpfulness toward others? Similarly, what is the effect of being less helpful to others when our stress is high?
The results were striking. On more stressful days, decreasing one’s prosocial behaviors led to less positive emotion, more negative emotion, and worse mental health. However, increasing one's helpful behaviors on stressful days significantly reduced the negative effects of high stress.
What might have led to these findings? The authors of the study offered five possible explanations, based on previous research:
When we're having a tough day it’s easy to become self-focused and less attuned to the people around us. I’m certainly as liable as anyone else to turn inward when times are hard. We might even lash out at the people around us when we're feeling stressed. But if we can get outside of ourselves enough to see and respond to the needs of others, the biggest favor we’re doing may be to ourselves.