Growing up with parents whose lives were integrated with their spiritual beliefs, which included helping others, as I watched them give of themselves in so many ways. I was often touched by their integrity, kindness, and consideration of others. They were very family oriented, and “family” extended beyond the nuclear unit. They taught me to see our family as part of the larger family of humanity.
Mom and Dad frequently performed quiet random acts of kindness: giving to children in our neighborhood and helping out neighbors and friends. My mother regularly cooked meals for homebound senior citizens, and my father gave his homegrown organic vegetables to many people. My parents were my great examples of how to be kind and live a good, loving life. They set the example for my own spiritual path and growth.
I still vividly remember an incident while I was grocery shopping with my father when I was seven years old. My father noticed a visibly distressed elderly woman who was crying and talking to the manager of the store. Though listening patiently, the manager did not appear to be moved by this woman’s tears. I watched as my father approached them, exchanged a few words, opened his wallet, and handed the woman several dollars. I saw relief wash over her face. She grasped Daddy’s hand and profusely thanked him. He smiled gently and said, “You’re welcome, Ma’am” as he walked away.
We went about our business. Daddy didn’t say a word, but I wanted to know what had happened. On the way home, I asked, “Daddy what was wrong with that lady?”
“She got off the bus and left her purse on it,” he explained. “She didn’t have a way to get home, so I gave her a few dollars to make sure that she did and to get something to eat.” Back then a bus ride cost fifteen or twenty cents.
As a young child, I was taken with not only his generosity but also his humility. It was no big deal to him, and he didn’t brag. He was very matter-of-fact about it. That was the first random act of kindness I clearly recall witnessing. I never forgot what Daddy did that day, or his humility. That one experience affected me deeply, and I’ve used it as a model and a guide for including altruism in my life.
Altruism is internally -motivated behavior that is born from a concern for the welfare of others rather than the anticipation of a benefit or reward. Our health and well-being benefit from helping others, if we can give without stressing and wearing ourselves out. There can be consequences to giving too much. Giving is beneficial only up to the point that it becomes physically and psychologically taxing. In other words, take care of yourself while you’re taking care of others.
Study Confirms Benefits of Giving
Now a new study has determined that providing help to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers can mitigate the impact of daily stressors on our emotions and our mental health, according to new research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
"Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves," explains study author Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine. "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."
We often turn to others for social support when we're feeling stressed, but these new results suggest that proactively doing things for others may be another effective strategy for coping with everyday worries and strains.
"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," Ansell adds. "It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better."
Study Designed to Measure Support Benefits
Laboratory-based experiments have shown that providing support can help individuals cope with stress, increasing their experiences of positive emotion. To investigate whether this holds true in the context of everyday functioning in the real world, Ansell and co-authors Elizabeth B. Raposa (UCLA and Yale University School of Medicine) and Holly B. Laws (Yale University School of Medicine) conducted 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 to 44 years old, participated in the 14-day study; people with 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 (e.g., interpersonal, work/education, home, finance, health/accident) and the total number of events comprised the measure of daily stress. They were also asked to report whether they had engaged in various helpful behaviors (e.g., held open a door, helped with schoolwork, asked someone if they needed help) that day.
The participants also completed a 10-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. A greater number of helping behaviors was associated with higher levels of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health.
And participants' helping behavior also influenced how they responded to stress. People who reported lower-than-usual helping behavior reported lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in response to high daily stress. Those who reported higher-than-usual levels of helping behavior, on the other hand, showed no dampening of positive emotion or mental health, and a lower increase in 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," says Ansell. "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."
The researchers note that additional studies will be necessary to determine whether the findings hold across ethnically and culturally diverse populations. "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 concludes.
Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being: Chapter 9
The article abstract is available online: "Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life" and access to other Clinical Psychological Science research findings http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/12/10/2167702615611073.abstract