You may think you’re too overwhelmed with your personal troubles to cheer up a sad friend, the same way you’re too busy at work to take a moment to recognise a colleague.
But research suggests you’re hardly doing yourself any favours by focusing on your own problems at the expense of supporting others.
According to a new small study, helping others can actually protect you from the negative effects of stress.
For the study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Yale University School of Medicine recruited 77 adults between ages 18 and 44. Each evening for two weeks, participants received a reminder to complete a series of questionnaires.
One questionnaire asked about any stressful events they’d experienced, related to work, relationships, finances, and other domains. Another asked participants to indicate any prosocial (helping) behaviours they’d demonstrated, from holding open a door to helping out with schoolwork. Other surveys asked participants to report how often they’d experienced certain positive and negative emotions that day, and to rate their mental health for that day on a scale from 0 to 100.
Results showed that, on days when participants were more helpful than usual, they experienced no decrease in positive emotion or mental health quality, and only a slight increase in negative emotion in response to stress. On the other hand, when they were less helpful than usual, participants experienced lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in response to stress.
The researchers write: “Results suggest that even brief periods of supporting or helping others might help to mitigate the negative emotional effects of daily stress.”
At this point, it’s unclear exactly why and how helping behaviour minimized the detrimental effects of stress. The researchers propose that supporting others might distract you from your own misery, at least temporarily. Helping others, they say, might also stimulate certain biological systems that tamp down the emotional stress response.
Of course, the study has some notable limitations, namely that all participants were Caucasian, so these findings not apply to the general population.
The researchers also acknowledge the necessity of future research that directly manipulates participants’ stress levels and also tracks their stress response and helping behaviour multiple times per day, as opposed to just once.
Still, the main takeaway seems to be: Lend a hand, no matter how frazzled you feel. You could be doing the recipient and yourself a favour.
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