At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health.
To help yourself, start by helping others.
Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.
“There is a lot of evidence that one of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton and author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.” “The great thing about showing up for other people is that it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot or anything at all, and it ends up being beneficial to the giver.”
Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Some research has focused on the “helper’s high.” Studies show that volunteering, donating money, or even just thinking about donating money can release feel-good brain chemicals and activate the part of the brain stimulated by the pleasures of food and sex. Studies of volunteers show that do-gooders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol on days they did volunteer work.
The challenge many of us are facing today is how to give support from a distance. Rules that require us to be physically apart during the pandemic mean that our traditional ways of volunteering in person are no longer possible. The good news is that the type of support that can be helpful to both giver and receiver can be given in a variety of small and big ways. It can include giving money or time to a cause. Or it can be as simple as a phone call, giving advice or just lending a listening ear.
In fact, the act of giving advice has been shown to be more beneficial than receiving it. In a series of studies of 2,274 people, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago found that after middle-school students mentored younger students about studying, they ended up spending more time on their own homework. Overweight people who counseled others on weight loss were more motivated to lose weight themselves.
Dr. Grant said we often are better at giving advice to people other than ourselves. “One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it,” said Dr. Grant, who co-founded an online networking platform called Givitas, which connects people for the purpose of asking for and giving support and advice. “When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.”
Feeling responsible for other people also can help us cope with whatever challenges life brings. Emily A. Greenfield, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University, studied a concept called “felt obligation,” which is measured by asking people questions such as how obligated they would feel to give money to a friend in need, even if it meant putting themselves in a bind. Dr. Greenfield analyzed data collected from 849 participants in an ongoing study of health and well-being, that asked about felt obligation as well as health-related declines they experienced over time, such as problems carrying groceries or walking a block.
As it turned out, the people who had higher levels of felt obligation — meaning they were the type of people to sacrifice for others — coped better with their own life challenges.
“These findings fit with the idea that an orientation to helping others is a protective factor — something that is especially important for well-being when confronted with distressing life circumstances,” Dr. Greenfield said.
She noted that caring for others helps us to regulate our own emotions and gain a sense of control. “When we remind a friend that social distancing measures are temporary, and this too shall pass, we are also, in effect, reminding ourselves and serving to regulate our own emotions,” she said.
Several studies suggest that supporting others helps buffer our bodies against the detrimental effects of stress. A five-year study of 846 people in Detroit found that stressful life events appeared to take a greater toll on people who were less helpful to others, while helping others seemed to erase the detrimental physical effects of stressful experiences.
“Small acts are important,” said Dr. Steven Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” “Part of that might have to do with just getting outside of myself, and finding meaning and purpose in something bigger than myself.”
Studies show that having a strong sense of purpose protects us from stress in the short term and predicts long-term better health, a lower risk of dying prematurely and even better financial health. Researchers say that finding meaning and purpose during social distancing may be especially important for high-school seniors and college students, who were on the cusp of discovering their purpose in life just as the coronavirus derailed graduations, internships and new jobs.
“Your purpose may be to help others in need, but it doesn’t have to be tackling big social structure issues,” said Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “It could be helping out your neighbor or just doing shopping for somebody. If your big picture goal is to help others in need, there are ways of doing that right now that may look different than how you used to do them.”
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