With the Christmas season upon us, chances are good that your stress level has gone up significantly. Purchasing gifts, decorating your home, preparing family events, sending cards and planning for travel only adds to the chaos of year-end reports, increased workloads, social events and other typical December stressors.
Even worse, the holidays are a time when many people start to suffer from anxiety and depression. It’s estimated that around 10 percent of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and many more suffer from a milder but still troubling condition colloquially referred to as the “winter blues.” So what could be done to reduce stress during the holiday season? Well, according to an encouraging new study, it may truly be better for your health to give than to receive.
Prosocial Behavior Eases Stress Levels
The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles, involved 77 participants between the ages of 18 and 44. These test subjects were given a set of questionnaires each evening for a period of two weeks. The first questionnaire dealt with stressful events experienced throughout the day, often related to work, finances, personal relationships and health issues. The second questionnaire asked participants about prosocial behaviors or “random acts of kindness,” such as loaning money to a friend, asking someone if they need help, holding open doors or helping a child with homework. A third survey asked the test subjects to indicate the frequency of negative or positive emotions experienced throughout the day, as well as rating their mental health from 0 to 100 using a well-established form known as the Positive and Negative Affect Scale.
Researchers found that most people averaged one to two acts of kindness per day. However, whenever a person exceeded the average, they were much more likely to report fewer negative emotions and fewer reductions in mental health or positive emotions throughout the day. At the same time, people who reported less prosocial behavior were much more likely to experience higher negative emotions, higher stress levels and lower positive emotions. According to a press release published by the Association for Psychological Science, researchers were surprised by “how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences.”
While the results of this study are intriguing, it is limited in a few ways. First of all, the sample size is quite low. Examining more than 77 people over a period of longer than two weeks may reveal different results if the study happens to be repeated in the future. Also, all of the test subjects happened to be Caucasian, so the results may not necessarily be the same within culturally or ethnically diverse populations. Nevertheless, the study has brought to light a potentially helpful mechanism for improving mood, reducing stress levels and preventing depression relapses that should warrant further investigation and research.
Acts of Kindness and Stress Levels: The Bottom Line
While the study was small and limited in scope, there’s really no harm in increasing your prosocial behavior if you’re searching for a way to de-stress this holiday season. It only takes a few moments to hold a door for a stranger, buy a friend a cup of coffee, loan your neighbor a tool or any other small act of kindness for which the opportunity arrises. Not only is it appropriate for the season, but it may help you feel better throughout the day and enable you to stay focused on all your holiday obligations without getting overwhelmed.