5 Ways That Helping Others Is Self-Serving
Acts of kindness may be especially important when stress is high.
Posted Jul 07, 2016
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:
- Distraction. When we’re focused on our own stress, it’s easy to become preoccupied with what's wrong in our lives. Reaching out to help someone else can redirect our attention to other things so we’re less fixated on our sources of stress.
- Greater meaning and self-efficacy. When a woman I treated in my practice lost her job, she lost a huge source of connection to others and way to feel good about her abilities. She decided on her own that she would do regular volunteer work while she was looking for a job. Through volunteering she had a continual reminder of her strengths and what she values most in life—meaningful relationships and working with others toward a shared goal. Being helpful to others can remind us that life is bigger than our passing problems.
- Activation of the oxytocin system. The authors speculate that prosocial behaviors lead to the release of oxytocin—a hormone involved in trust and bonding with others—which may dampen negative emotions.
- Dopamine-based reward. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in response to rewarding activities: eating, sex, winning a bet, scoring a goal, etc. There seems to be something inherently rewarding about doing nice things for others. Kindness may indeed be its own (dopamine-based) reward.
- Lowering activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response to stress is well known, and is an expression of the sympathetic nervous system which readies our bodies and minds to deal with the source of our stress. The authors cite studies showing that compassion is associated with a reduced stress response, as is expressing affection. Therefore they hypothesize that helping others may directly affect our body’s physiological response to stress.
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.