PhotoThe body means well by flipping the “stress switch" on. Feeling stressed amid a life-threatening situation is good, of course, as it raises the chance for survival. But when the body deems a traffic jam “life-threatening,” the stress response is not quite as useful.

When that stress switch gets flipped, experts say the antidote may be right in front of you: just do a good deed. An act of kindness as small as holding an elevator, returning a stray wallet, or helping pick up a stack of papers can actually help you feel less stressed throughout your day, research shows.

“Prosocial” behavior yields positivity

In a study published recently in Clinical Psychology Science, Emily Ansell and two of her Yale School of Medicine colleagues monitored 77 adults over a two-week period. Using a smartphone app, participants recorded stressful experiences and small acts of kindness when prompted.

Results showed that “prosocial” (or helping) behavior led to increased positivity and a decreased negative reaction to stress. "It pretty much kept people feeling similar to days where they were not stressed at all," Ansell tells NPR.

Where stress is the rain, it seems kindness is the umbrella. Positive moods set in motion by small acts of kindness appeared to shelter participants from the negative effects of stress. By contrast, when participants reported fewer instances of helping others than what was average for them, they had a more negative emotional reaction to stress.

Doing more than average

Researchers already knew that people with altruistic tendencies tend to be happier and live longer than non-altruistic types. But Ansell and her colleagues discovered that you don’t have to be Mother Teresa or even be more helpful than the next guy — you just have to be a little nicer than usual.

“It’s all about doing more than your average,” Ansell said. “Being more altruistic than usual can change your experience from day to day.”

This positive reaction to even the slightest amount of extra caring is hardwired in us, according to neuroscientist James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “That is the reward for caring," he says. “Evolutionarily speaking, humans need this reward for survival because our big-brained babies require so many years of selfless care.”

Authenticity is key

The study stipulates, however, that you can’t just go through the motions of doing a good deed; it must come from a real place of caring.

"You have to come from a place of authenticity," says Emma Seppala, who directs the Stanford program with Doty. "If you're doing it for explicitly selfish reasons, it's unclear whether you'll get benefits."

The next step for the study’s authors is to figure out how to harness the power of prosocial behavior. A smartphone app that could deliver suggestions about how to alter behavior could help those who struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, Ansell surmises.

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