Daily stress is a good excuse to avoid other people’s needs, but this choice is a double loss. The kindness we display to make other people’s days better is a very strong antidote to the high level of stress we experience daily.
Would it be difficult to imagine that doctors could, in the future, prescribe acts of kindness to the patients they treat, as an alternative to the usual prescription? This is not an impossible scenario, says Dr John Rowe, Professor of Health Policy at the Mailman School of Public Health at the University of Columbia. He underlines the fact that there is plenty of evidence which points to the positive effects of helping others on an individual’s health, enough for a public health initiative of this kind to be justified.
The fact that the good we do for others has the happiest repercussions for us is a truth that we can all verify, to a greater or lesser extent. The reality, however, is that in the midst of increasingly crowded days, we find ourselves more and more often lagging behind when it comes to acts of kindness.
Where did all the good Samaritans go?
At the beginning of the 70s, researchers John Darley and Daniel Baston developed an experiment that brought the parable of the good Samaritan to the forefront, to figure out the motives people have for doing good things for others.
The subjects that were to be tested were very promising for such an experiment. They were all students at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Half of the students participating in the study received the instruction to prepare a short essay about work-related opportunities, and the other half a short essay on the parable of the good Samaritan. After filling out surveys that sought to identify the intrinsic or extrinsic motivation of the good deeds they do, the subjects were asked to go to another building to resume the discussion. Called in every 15 minutes so they would not meet each other, the volunteers came across a fallen young man, coughing and groaning, on the alley that led to the meeting place. For the situation to be even more constraining, the alley was so narrow that it was impossible to go around the ”victim.”
The surprise of the experiment came from the fact that the subjects’ willingness to help was neither influenced by the self-declared intrinsic motivation of good deeds nor by the nature of the task they had to fulfil. What mattered in the end was time: 63% of the subjects who were told that they had enough time to get to the next meeting helped, 45% of those who were told that they have the exact time necessary to get to the meeting helped, and only 10% of those who were told they would be late stopped to help.
The experiment shows that, although we believe people do what they do due to their internal motivation, circumstantial factors play a significant role in determining a person’s behaviour, psychology professor Glenn Geher says.
The scene where a seminary student carelessly passes by a moaning victim, perhaps while he is actually mediating on the parable of the Good Samaritan, is intriguing, betraying the gap between adhering to a certain set of moral principles and the behaviour of the same person when a fellow man needs help.
Commenting on the results of this experiment, Serge Moscovici, one of the founders of social psychology, noticed how unsatisfying the percentage was of those 10% seminary students who, though under time pressure, chose to help the man in need. We can talk about altruism only in the case of those who sacrificed something to help their fellow man, and not in the case of those who stopped knowing that they had enough time, Moscovici says.
An altruistic person is ready to sacrifice their time and goods under any circumstance, even if they are not rewarded for it, because ”it is interested in others through a kind of relationship it generally has with others, convinced that the world would certainly be better off if everyone did the same.” Practicing altruism in a culture that is ruled by selfishness is not at all easy. However, without empathy and help—even that kind of help that requires sacrifice—we no longer have a society, but a veritable jungle where the strongest prevail, the psychologist says.
More stressed than ever?
It is probably hard for us to imagine how we would have behaved if were part of the experiment developed by Batson and Darley, unless we are used to honouring every request for help we encounter. If, however, we are not part of this unusual category, we can admit that we are often too stressed, in too much of a hurry, too frustrated, or too troubled to stop and offer a smile, a healing word, a supportive gesture to those who need it. Or we can admit we numb our consciences by postponing the help that is required today till tomorrow, a help that we are too overwhelmed to give today.
We believe we are more stressed than our predecessors, but our complaints about the stresses of modern life have a pretty long history, according to a study developed by researcher Mark Jackson from the University of Exeter. In 1925, American psychiatrist William S. Sadler believed that the origin of the increase in mortality rates caused by cardiovascular and kidney disease is the daily tension generated by the inability to adapt to the stress of a new normality that includes plane rides and wireless phone calls.
We believe we are more stressed than our predecessors, but our complaints about the stresses of modern life have a pretty long history.
The failure to adapt to the ”rapidly changing conditions” would be the cause of the increasing number of physical afflictions precipitated by emotional disorders, said professor Walter Langdon Brown in an article published in 1933 in The Lancet. In an overview of the reasons why modern life had become so stressful (in 1937), British cardiologist Lord Horder arrived at the monotony of work, sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep but also the growing feeling of uncertainty at an international level.
Jackson points out that the idea of a connection between developed societies and stress was included in the term of “neurasthenia,” popularized in 1860 by American neurologist George Beard and adopted by doctors and patients. Neurasthenia or ”American nervousness,” as Beard called it, was said to be caused by the changes produced by the introduction of the steam car, periodic publications, the invention of the telegraph, and the involvement of women in scientific research.
Regardless of how acute the previous generations felt the stress that crept into everyday life, we now compete for the title of most stressed generation. Occupational stress increased by 30% between 1990 and 1995, according to data offered by The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE). There are a series of reasons why anxiety and stress levels are continuously growing, both in the case of millennials and in the case of older generations. However, solutions cannot be found quickly since we have given up the past social, psychological, and religious anchors.
The level of daily stress has been much higher in 2012 compared to the 90s. This was the conclusion of researchers from Pennsylvania State University. The study showed that Americans experienced a level of stress which had increased by 2% over the course of a single decade. The increase for middle-aged people was approximately 19%. The study’s coordinator, David Almeida, says that stress and anxiety are not new, but that current generations suffer under the psychological impact of unique changes taking place in technology and, implicitly, in the way we relate to the world.
The United States is faced with a national mental health crisis, says the American Psychological Association (APA), after the survey ”Stress in America” in 2020 showed that the stress factors American respondents identified in previous years overlapped with the COVID-19-generated crisis.
Approximately 67% of adults claimed they experienced a high stress level during the pandemic, and 60% complained that the number of problems they face is overwhelming for them. Among the problems that are a significant source of stress are those related to health (60%), global warming (55%), an increase in the numbers of suicides (51%), or the large number of sexual abuse cases presented on the news (47%).
An elevated stress level compromises our capacity to relate to others, and this relational collapse leads to even more stress, psychologist Meg van Deusen says. A high stress level leaves us stuck in survival mode, which means that we will excessively focus on ourselves and will thus be poorly equipped to listen to others, to think straight and to solve complex problems. Breaking free from the spiral of this tension begins by acknowledging the stress we experience (which makes us less emotionally reactive) and continues with setting up boundaries for using digital technology, connecting with others, and spending time in nature, Van Deusen says.
By helping others, we also decrease our daily stress
An effective strategy to reduce the impact of stressors on our emotional health is to help friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, according to a study conducted by American researchers. Lab experiments have already shown that help given to others helps individuals to better cope with stress, but researchers checked whether this works on a daily basis. The volunteers (aged 18 to 44) participated in the experiment for 14 days and were asked to report the stressful events of the day, by phone, each night, but also the helpful offers they made to others (including the simple gesture of holding the door open for someone). Subjects also evaluated, using a 100-point scale, their emotional state on that particular day. The results have shown that a large number of helpful behaviours was associated with a higher level of positive emotions and better mental health.
Research shows that we help ourselves when we help others, says researcher Emily Ansell from Yale University. She explains that the effects of prosocial behaviour have been amazingly strong and uniform. On stressful days (that generate a negative state of mind and affect mental health), there was no stress impact on the positive emotions or mental health of the subjects who offered their help to others, Ansell says.
The fact that our good deeds towards others have a positive impact on us is a truth which has been proven by many other studies. Researchers from Columbia University concluded that when we offer emotional support to those who find themselves in stressful situations, we improve our own abilities to regulate our emotions and we can even reduce our depression. Other studies have shown that spending money on other people can have a stronger impact on our happiness than spending money on oneself or that time given to others makes time that we have left over for ourselves seem more elastic.
Generosity is one of the best cures for anxiety and it is not even necessary for the help to be costly to result in a reward for the one offering it, psychologist Adam Grant says.
Helping people matters, says psychiatry professor Steven Southwick, explaining that their unexpected effect may be connected to the fact that we step outside our eternal concern for ourselves, thus finding ”purpose and a goal in something bigger than us.” Perhaps the good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable did not know that the kindness he showed to the one fallen among thieves would strengthen his own physical and emotional welfare, but he certainly found a higher purpose to live for, following the example of the Son of Man, who ”did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.