Society tends to reward people who do good deeds, so we learn, early on, to feel good about helping others. We evolve to be social. But are we as likely to engage in “prosocial” or helping behavior when we’re stressed, pushed for time and it’s not “convenient?” Turns out, that may be when we need it most.

Let’s say that you’re running to catch the morning train — if you miss the train, you’ll be late for work, again. It’s been a Murphy’s Law morning — everything that could possibly go wrong has – you burned breakfast, misplaced your keys, and the heavens unleashed a sudden torrential downpour the instant you left your house and it’s going to be a really bad hair day. But you manage to make it to the subway platform with barely a minute to spare. Then, the elderly lady in line in front of you drops her purse, her belongings scatter across the platform. Other boarders rush past as if she’s invisible, heedless of her plight.

Do you stop to lend a helping hand? Well, of course you should because it’s the right thing to do. But evidence suggests that there may be another good reason: Performing this one small act of kindness will actually help you feel less stressed.

It’s been widely established that altruistic people — people who act out of selfless concern for the well-being of others — tend to be happier and live longer. But one recent study shows that helping behavior actually buffers the negative effects of daily, naturally occurring stressors on our emotional well-being. “It pretty much kept people feeling similar to days where they were not stressed at all,” says study coauthor Emily Ansell, a psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine (Raposa et al, 2015).

For two weeks, study participants used a smartphone app to record daily stressful experiences and small acts of kindness, like giving someone directions, holding an elevator, or returning a lost wallet to its owner. Those who helped others more frequently in a day’s time reported higher levels of positive emotion that day. But that’s not all.

Their daily behavior also had an impact on how they responded to stress. On days when participants reported fewer instances of helping others, they had stronger negative emotional reactions to stress. On the other hand, performing more good deeds than usual sheltered them from the negative effects of stress — they experienced no decrease in positive emotion that day and a lower than usual negative response to stress.

The study found that no matter what your baseline level of antipathy may be, hating people even a little bit less for the day makes you feel less stressed. “It’s not just whether you’re more altruistic than the next person,” Ansell says. “It’s that being more altruistic than usual can change your experience from day to day. It’s all about doing more than your average.”

So, altruism, it appears, is self-compounding. Imagine how much better you’d feel in a few short months if, every day, you exercised just a little more selfless concern for the well-being of others.

But why does helping others buffer stress and improve emotional well-being?

While no one seems to have precisely pinpointed the active ingredient, there are a number of theories.

Many previous studies have shown that when we’re stressed, we tend to seek out opportunities to affiliate with and nurture others, and that this prosocial behavior can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of stress. But helping behavior appears to be a stronger stress buffer than hanging out with friends or other positive social contact.

Other studies have shown that spouse caregivers achieve similar reductions in stress (Poulin et al, 2010). As Michael Poulin, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo who co-authored one such study points out: “When you’re thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems. Thinking about someone else in need reduces the ability to conjure up words relating to the self.”

And that alone may reduce the negative impact of stress. Even if helping others is only, effectively, a distraction, it’s at least a more rewarding distraction than spending hours binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.

We seem to be hardwired in such a way that caring for and nurturing others positively impacts our physiology. It’s our reward for caring.

For example, some research has shown that emotions associated with caregiving (e.g., love, empathy and compassion), stimulate the release of the powerful neurohormone oxytocin, which has long been associated with monogamy, maternal and partner bonding, trust, and social attachment, as well as other physiological changes (e.g., increased serotonin and dopamine; decreased norepinephrine). The result is a calming, stress-relief effect. Meditation, incidentally, has also been found to automatically increase arginine vasopressin, which mediates oxytocin in social behavior (Ebstein R.P., et al, 2009).

Authenticity Required

Research so far seems to suggest that it’s the altruism component of good deeds that produces the greatest stress relief. So, does helping others for explicitly selfish reasons count? Not likely. We’re likely to only truly reap the rewards from doing good deeds for others when our acts come from a place of authenticity.



Ebstein RP, Israel S, Lerer E, Uzefovsky F, Shalev I, Gritsenko I, Riebold M, Salomon S, Yirmiya N.. Arginine vasopressin and oxytocin modulate human social behavior. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jun;1167:87-102.

Raposa, Elizabeth B., Laws, Holly B., Ansell, Emily B. Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life. Clinical Psychological Science December 10, 2015.


Poulin, Michael J., Brown, Stephanie L., Ubel, Peter A.,  Smith, Dylan M., Jankovic, Aleksandra, Langa, Kenneth M.. Does a Helping Hand Mean a Heavy Heart? Helping Behavior and Well-Being Among Spouse Caregivers.  Psychol Aging. 2010 Mar; 25(1): 108–117.