EMOTIONAL HEALTH
March 12, 2013

Better Than a Stiff Drink

Helping others isn't just a good thing to do. It's one of the best ways to ease stress — and prolong life — there is.

It's 6 P.M. and you have just arrived home from work, having spent 40 minutes in stop-and-go traffic. You are feeling pretty tired and stressed-out from a long day followed by a long drive. You are thinking of decompressing with a beer and a bit of mindless TV when out the window, you see your elderly neighbor struggling with his recycling bins.

Lucky you. You have found a really good way to reduce your stress, at least if you decide to head out to give him a hand. And it's better than that: helping others out doesn't just ease stress; it can be a lifesaver.

People who had reported being highly stressed were the most likely to die during those five years. What is interesting is that this was only true for those who didn't extend themselves to help others.

People who help others are not affected as strongly by the stresses in their own lives, a new study has found. In fact, over five years, people in the study who reported providing tangible assistance to friends or family were less likely to die. The study, of 846 people from the Detroit, Michigan area, found that doing for others offered protection from stress.

Stress can kill but, at least in this study, helping others made the helper immune to the deadly effects of stress.

People completed detailed interviews at the study's start, cataloguing all the stressful events they had undergone in the past year, as well as reporting whether or not they had provided assistance to friends or family members during that year. Those who had given assistance added up the total amount of time they had spent during the past year helping friends, neighbors and relatives who did not live with them by providing transportation, doing errands and shopping, performing housework and child care and other similar tasks.

The researchers then looked at mortality data for the next five years. People who had reported being highly stressed were the most likely to die during those five years. What is interesting is that this was only true for those who didn't extend themselves to help others.

No connection was seen between stress and mortality among people who offered assistance to their fellow humans. As the researchers describe it, helping others was a buffer for stress and its effects on mortality.

The findings provide food for thought for people who feel their lives are too busy and stressful already and that they don't have time or the means to help others. Doing so might be the perfect anti-stress pill. And for people who believe in karma, it's another real-life example that what comes around really does go around.

"Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality" was published online by the American Journal of Public Health and will also appear in a future print issue of the journal.
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