These days, there seem to be an almost limitless number of reasons to feel stress, from finances, supporting a family, and work (or lack thereof), to social pressures, competition from online social media, loneliness, the current political landscape, and the online comments section of any type of media. We have developed many ways to cope with this stress—and usually, coping involves a type of reward, such as a treat, either with food or with shopping.
But psychologists recently published a study that reveals that such rewards have almost no affect in actually relieving stress. In fact, levels remained the same as those who gave themselves no such reward.
So is there actually something people can do on a regular basis to lift their moods when confronted with stress? As it turns out, there is—and it involves not looking inwardly but looking outwardly: Helping others.
The reward study, led by Dr. Katherine Nelson of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, followed a group of almost 500 participants, assessed and questioned to determine their emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The participants were then divided into groups: one was asked to perform acts of kindness for themselves, which could include taking the day off work or even exercising more; another group did good deeds for the planet and society at large, such as picking up trash; a third group performed acts of kindness for others, which could include anything from helping cook dinner for the family, buying someone lunch, donating to someone’s Kickstarter campaign—helping someone in any way, big or small; the fourth group served as the control to do nothing that differed from their ordinary behaviors or practices. Over six weeks, participants reported their emotions, positive or negative, and then filled out a final questionnaire at the end of the study.
The results found that those in the two groups who performed acts of kindness, either for specific other people or for the world, reported more positive emotions, either joy, contentment, satisfaction, or love.
On the other hand, those who focused inwardly—treating themselves with acts of kindness or rewards—reported no change in emotions, no improvement in well-being. This matched the results of the group that did nothing extra.
I have previously discussed the benefits of acts of kindness and other pro-social behaviors on well-being. There is a sense of empowerment that comes from participating in kindness toward others, a way to have positive control over the world, even if that is small. In helping others, we take pride in our actions. Furthermore, by participating in acts of kindness, we not only promote kindness but will experience the benefits of kindness, either in reciprocation or appreciation. This helps to establish a better view of the world, especially in times of stress (and political divisiveness)—and this better world view, while putting us in a more calm environment, can have a real physiological impact in ways that include lowering blood pressure.
Furthermore, according to acclaimed psychologist Dacher Keltner, head of UC Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab and consultant to Pixar on the film Inside Out, acts of kindness release dopamine, the feel-good hormone. He’s spoken at length on the connection between compassion and emotion and has written books on how acts of compassion serve to reduce stress. So in a way, by doing something nice for someone else, our brains end up rewarding us by making us feel good.
In a world that has become increasingly combative and isolationist, a simple act can serve so much, from helping someone to ultimately helping ourselves. And while one act may not solve every problem, reducing stress (and sometimes blood pressure) can help us tackle the other tasks more efficiently and attenuate the physical and emotional strain while doing so.
If you’re currently suffering from stress or if you would like to discuss ways of engaging in pro-social behavior and practical kindness, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or at my website www.pfeifferphd.com.