This holiday season, try being kind to ‘unwind’

December 21, 2018

While performing random acts of kindness definitely helps others, a study conducted in 2015 by researchers at Yale University and UCLA suggests that doing good also might be good for us—diffusing our own stress and improving our mental health.

“The take-home message is that, when we are stressed and we help others, we can also end up helping ourselves,” Emily Ansell, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, told CBS News in an interview.

Ansell conducted the study along with co-authors Holly Laws, also of Yale’s School of Medicine; and Elizabeth Raposa, who was then at UCLA and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. It was published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science. –

“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,” Ansell said. “It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better.”

To investigate whether this holds true in the context of everyday functioning in the real world, the researchers fielded a study in which people used their smartphones to report on their feelings and experiences in daily life. A total of 77 adults, ranging from 18-44 years of age, participated in the 14-day study. People who suffered from substance dependences, diagnosed mental illness, or cognitive impairment were not included for participation.

The participants received an automated phone reminder every night that prompted them to complete their daily assessment. They were asked to report any stressful life events they experienced that day across several domains (such as interpersonal, work/education, home, finance, health/accident) and the total number of events comprised the measure of daily stress.

In addition, they were asked to report whether they had engaged in various helpful behaviors (like holding open a door, helping with schoolwork, and bringing someone an extra coffee) that day.

The participants also completed a ten-item short-form of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, a well-validated measure of experienced emotion, and they were asked to rate their mental health for that day using a slider on a scale that ranged from 0 (poor) to 100 (excellent).

The results indicated that helping others boosted participants’ daily well-being. Those who performed a greater number of helping behaviors experienced higher levels of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health.

The opposite also was true: Participants who reported fewer-than-usual helping behaviors experienced less positive emotion and more negative emotion in response to high daily stress.

In other words, helping behavior seemed to buffer the negative effects of stress on well-being.

“It was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences,” Ansell told CBS News. “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.”

One avenue for future investigation, the researchers said, is to determine whether actively prompting people to engage in more helping behavior can further improve their mood and mental health.

“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,” Ansell said.

Research contact: @emily_ansell

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