Altruism, the practice of selfless behavior, is heavily applauded by our society. We often see acts of kindness and charity brought to light in the media and news. Although we can all relate to the feeling of satisfaction that comes after a good deed, most people might not know that performing altruistic acts may improve our psychological well-being.
Psychiatry professor Emily Ansell and her colleagues, Elizabeth Raposa and Holly Laws, at Yale School of Medicine conducted a study to understand how stress affects our lives differently depending on the level of prosocial behavior we perform. Participants of this experiment used their smartphones to keep track of two things: stressful experiences in their daily lives and small acts of kindness performed on a day-to-day basis. Ansell, Raposa, and Laws used an established inventory of stressors and prosocial behaviors to determine if an event could be categorized as “stressful,” “altruistic,” or neither. Through the use of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, participants rated the extent to which they experienced positive and negative emotional states. The results of this experiment showed that on days when participants performed selfless acts, they felt “similar to days where they were not stressed at all” and that performing charitable acts was associated with decreased negative emotional reaction to stress during the day, which ultimately means that helping others increases positive emotion in your life.
The exact mechanism for this phenomenon is not known yet, but another psychology professor, Michael Poulin, believes that when you’re too busy helping someone else, you don’t have time to think about yourself and problems you may be dealing with. And this distraction of altruistic behavior is more satisfying than going on Facebook or watching Netflix for hours.
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Moreover, emotions linked to caregiving stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone that can function to reduce cortisol levels in our body. Cortisol is another hormone that our body produces in response to a traumatic event. Basically, when we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol in preparation for an unfavorable event. However, we can counterattack this increase in cortisol with oxytocin, which produces a calming effect on the body by triggering this physiological change.
In other words, helping others helps us to combat stress in our own lives by increasing positive emotion in our lives as well as levels of oxytocin in our bodies to ultimately produce a happier and longer life. As Ansell, Raposa, and Laws studied, prosocial behavior reduces the toll of stress that might take on us if we lead selfish lives. Thus, to keep your mental health in check, it might be to your benefit to lend a hand.
Feature Image Source: Flickr “Hug” by henry…