The Curious Side Effect of Kindness

Although providing help to friends and colleagues or rendering assistance to strangers has some pretty obvious benefits for the receiving party, an often overlooked and underrated benefit lies in our own mental health.  

Research indicates that helping others can be beneficial for our mental health, working to provide us with a sense of purpose while mitigating the impact of everyday stressors. A 2015 study published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal found that acts as small as holding the door open for others or helping a stranger carry groceries to their car were successful in buffering the negative effects of a stressful day. 

“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” said study co-author Emily Ansell, PhD and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. “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, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.” 

The study showed that the amount of prosocial behaviour (actions or behaviour intended to benefit others or society as a whole) undertaken by participants directly correlated to their emotional response to stress, with those who engaged in more prosocial behaviours on particularly stressful days experiencing little to no impact on their positive emotions or daily mental health, and only a slight increase in negative emotion.

As well as aiding in moderating the effects of stress, helping others has been found to actually make us happier. The concept of the ‘helper’s high’ has been around since the 1980s, with the term referring to the sense of exhilaration or euphoria felt after performing a selfless act like volunteering or donating money. Studies have shown that these selfless acts activate the mesolimbic system in the brain - a system stimulated by food, sex, and drugs - by releasing ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters like oxytocin and vasopressin which encourage feelings of elation.

Shifting the focus away from yourself and onto others by engaging in helpful or caring acts can also aid in recalibrating the thought processes and thinking patterns that support depression and anxiety. A 2017 study on clinically depressed and anxious patients found that focusing on compassionate goals (striving to support others) was more effective in reducing participants’ symptoms than pursuing self image goals (striving to promote/protect participants’ desired self-image). By turning their attention away from themselves and onto others, we’re able to improve our own self worth and the quality of our interpersonal relationships, while moderating our perspectives on our own lives.

As for how to help others? Even the smallest acts of kindness make a difference. Start by holding the door open for others, saying hello to your neighbours when you pass them on a walk, helping a friend out in the garden, or even just letting the car in the lane next to you merge in. Then, you can go a little bigger by volunteering at a food bank or your local aged care facility, mentoring someone within your industry, or starting a community garden in your neighbourhood. 

While the best method of helping out will likely vary from person to person, it’s important to keep in mind that the primary aim is to benefit others (though the positive effect on our own mental health is always a welcome one).