Study: Altruism is good for mental health

By Susan Gonsalves
February 1st, 2016

Helping someone else can be good for your mental health.

A study, recently published in Clinical Psychological Science, concluded that doing small acts for others such as holding open a door or giving directions to strangers or acquaintances helps to decrease stress.

Study author Emily Ansell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, explained that the research involved people using their smartphone to record their daily feelings and experiences.

Ansell said that the benefits of social support for stress are well documented. Less clear, she said, is whether everyday acts of social interaction can improve mood and alleviate worries.

During the 14-day study, 77 adults of both sexes ranging in age from 18 to 45 reported via smartphones on their daily life experiences and stress levels. They also reported on whether or not they had demonstrated helpful behaviors such as assisting an elderly person, making change in a checkout line or picking up an object for someone else.

The researcher noted that the study excluded individuals with substance abuse issues, diagnosed mental illnesses or cognitive impairments.

“Stress results in poorer moods and mental health,” Ansell said. “The results show that even small positive social acts can help a person to feel better and less stressed that day.”

Participants who performed more helping behaviors had higher levels of positive emotion. Consequently, people who reported lower numbers of helping behaviors experienced greater negative emotion in reaction to stress.

“It was very interesting how uniform the effects were across daily experiences,” Ansell said.

The researcher said that it might make sense to encourage people at-risk for depression relapse or experiencing acute stress to engage in helping behaviors.

However, more studies are needed to see whether the results are the same in more culturally and ethnically diverse populations, she said.

Future research will focus on whether ‘prescribing’ helping behaviors to patients can improve their mental health.

“It would indicate whether being cued to do these acts will help people and be used as an effective intervention,” Ansell said.

Other investigators included Elizabeth Raposa, Ph.D., a predoctoral fellow at Yale at the time of the study and now an assistant professor at William and Mary, and Holly Laws, Ph.D., a postdoctorate fellow at Yale.

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