Lending someone else a helping hand during stressful times could alleviate the effect daily stress has on our emotional well-being.
The study, led by Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine in Connecticut, is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress can sometimes be a positive thing, in that it helps people develop the skills they need to manage and adapt to new situations throughout life.
There is, of course, another side to that coin; when stress is intense enough to overwhelm our ability to take care of ourselves or families, it can cause major problems.
In stressful situations, it is important to use healthy ways of coping so that stressful feelings and symptoms diminish.
The researchers from the latest study say that previous lab-based experiments have shown that providing support to others can help individuals better deal with stress, increasing their positive emotions.
But Ansell and colleagues wanted to assess whether this is also true in real-world contexts, so they did so in a group of 77 adults who were between the ages of 18-44.
'When we help others, we help ourselves'
For 14 days, the participants - who did not have substance dependencies, diagnosed mental illness or cognitive impairment - received an automated phone reminder to complete their daily assessment.
This consisted of reporting any stressful life events they experienced that day; the team tallied the total number of stressful events to determine each individual's daily stress measurement.
Additionally, the participants reported whether they had performed any helpful behaviors that day, for example, holding open a door, helping someone with schoolwork or asking someone if they needed help.
After the participants also completed a 10-item questionnaire for the Positive and Negative Affect Scale - which is a measure of experienced emotion - they also rated their mental health for that day on a scale from 0-100 (poor to excellent).
Overall, results showed that helping others increased the participants' well-being, and a larger number of helping behaviors was linked with higher scores of daily positive emotion and better mental health.
Furthermore, participants who reported low helping behavior reported lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in relation to daily stresses; participants who reported higher-than-usual levels of helping behavior showed no decreases in positive emotion of mental health in the wake of daily stress.
"Our research shows that when we help others, we can also help ourselves," says Ansell, who adds:
"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."
Because the holiday season can be very stressful, she suggests we "think about giving directions, asking someone if they need help, or holding that elevator door over the next month." She says it "may end up helping you feel just a little bit better."
Further study needed
Although Ansell says it "was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences," the researchers say further studies need to be conducted to determine whether their findings will remain across more ethnically and culturally diverse populations.
They would like to determine whether intentionally promoting helping behavior as a way for people to improve their mood and mental health could be an avenue for mood and mental health improvement.
"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."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested unhappiness and stress do not cause ill health. Researchers suggested it is ill health that makes us unhappy, not vice versa.
However, another research team suggested stress may contribute to Alzheimer's disease.