The holidays are a very stressful time of year for many people, as buying presents, a tree (and decorating it), and rushing to get end-of-year work done must all be fit into already busy schedules. New research, however, suggests that simple acts of kindness like donating gifts to those in need may be all it takes to reverse the effects of this stress.

"Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves," study author Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine said in a press release. "Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won't feel as poorly on stressful days."

For the study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, Ansell and her colleagues had 77 adults aged 18 to 44 complete a 14-day experiment in which they used their smartphones to report their daily feelings and experiences. Participants reported all stressful events they experienced, no matter who they involved or where they took place, at the end of the day, and the number of stressful events were tallied up as a measure of stress levels. During this time, they also reported how many acts of kindness they committed, regardless of how small they were. Finally, they were asked to complete a 10-item questionnaire meant to measure their emotions, as well as rate their mental health on a scale from 1 (poor) to 100 (excellent).

The researchers found those who committed small acts of kindness tended to have more positive days than those who didn’t. They also affected how the participants were affected by stress; helping others was associated with a weaker increase in negative emotions, and there was no effect on overall positive emotions or mental health. Conversely, those who didn’t help others often reported lower positive emotions and higher negative emotions when confronted with stressful situations.

"It was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences," Ansell said. "For example, if a participant did engage in more prosocial behaviors on stressful days, there was essentially no impact of stress on positive emotion or daily mental health. And there was only a slight increase in negative emotion from stress if the participant engaged in more prosocial behaviors."

The researchers believe further studies are needed to see how far this theory stretches across different, more diverse populations. They also want to focus on whether prompting someone to perform acts of kindness will also improve their mood and mental health. In the meantime, however, with the holidays coming up, Ansell said: “The holiday season can be a very stressful time, so think about giving directions, asking someone if they need help, or holding that elevator door over the next month. It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better.”

Source: Ansell E, Laws H, Raposa E. Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life. Clinical Psychological Science. 2015.