In Helping Others You Help Yourself

Consider the positive feelings you experienced the last time when you did something good for someone else. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of running an errand for your neighbor, or the sense of fulfillment from volunteering at a local organization, or the gratification from donating to a good cause. Or perhaps it was the simple joy of having helped out a friend. This “warm glow” of pro-sociality is thought to be one of the drivers of generous behavior in humans. One reason behind the positive feelings associated with helping others is that being pro-social reinforces our sense of relatedness to others, thus helping us meet our most basic psychological needs.

Research has shown many examples of how doing good, in ways big or small, not only feels good, but also does us good. For instance, the well-being-boosting and depression-lowering benefits of volunteering have been repeatedly documented. As is the sense of meaning and purpose that often accompanies altruistic behavior. Even when it comes to money, spending it on others predicts increases in happiness compared to spending it on ourselves. Moreover, there is now neural evidence from fMRI studies suggesting a link between generosity and happiness in the brain. For example, donating money to charitable organizations activates the same (mesolimbic) regions of the brain that respond to monetary rewards or sex. In fact, the mere intent and commitment to generosity can stimulate neural change and make people happier.

Recent research suggests yet another way our well-being can benefit from practicing pro-social behavior: helping others regulate their emotions helps us regulate our own emotions, decreases symptoms of depression and ultimately, improves our emotional well-being. 

Regulating each other’s emotions

Our day-to-day lives offer plenty of opportunities for regulating our own emotions. When we are happy, sad, frustrated or anxious, we find ways of managing our feelings to meet the demands of our environments. At times, however, when the weight of our emotions becomes too much to bare, we turn to others for support. Social regulation of emotion is a key component of our relationships. Whenever we navigate children through tantrums, help a friend through a breakup, or rely on our partners for comfort after a challenging day, we often engage in social regulation of emotion. Whether we are the ones providing the emotional support or the ones seeking it, the 2 most common ways to help others regulate their emotions are through acceptance (showing empathy by validating their feelings) and reappraisal (helping others think about their situation in a different way). A recent study from Columbia University has revealed that when helping others navigate their stressful situations, we are enhancing our own emotion regulation skills, and thus, benefiting our own emotional well-being. 

The study

Over a 3-week period, participants were provided with an anonymous online environment where they could share their personal stories of stressful life events. They could also provide emotional support to other participants by replying to their entries with short, empathetic messages. Participants helped each other by identifying potential distortions in thinking, suggesting reappraisal strategies or providing words of acceptance. Responses were rated for their degree of helpfulness and participants were given the opportunity to express their gratitude for the acceptance or reappraisal messages that they received from others. 

The results showed that helping others to regulate their emotions predicted better emotional and cognitive outcomes for those participants who were giving the help. Moreover, because heightened levels of self-focused attention are common in depression, the more people helped others, the more their helping behavior predicted a reduction in their own depression, thanks to the use of reappraisal in their own daily lives. Follow-up analyses further showed that this increase in reappraisal in people’s lives also affected their mood and subjective happiness. Interestingly, messages that used other-focused language (e.g., second-person pronouns such as you and your) were considered more helpful and garnered more gratitude from participants. In fact, using other-focused language not only helped the people in need, but also those who were helping. This finding suggests that when providing emotional support to others, trying to fully take on their perspective can increase reappraisal and lead to better psychological outcomes for those who are providing the support. 

Next time you find yourself helping someone with regulating their emotions, consider how your efforts may be providing you with an opportunity to practice for future situations at a distance, and consequently, improving your emotional well-being. Thus, when it comes to the benefits of social emotion regulation, St. Francis of Assisi’s words ring especially poignant: For it is in the giving that we receive. 

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