As I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, rumination is bad news. I wrote about some beliefs that pre-dispose people to ruminate. Now here is another link to rumination: self-focus.
Self-focus is positively associated with rumination about problems, and high levels of self-focus indicate a vulnerability for depression and anxiety (Wood, et al., 1990). Conversely, research reveals that kind emotions and helping behavior are strongly correlated with well-being, health, and longevity.
Today’s blog post will be a discussion of the negative consequences associated with self-focused attention. I will describe the contrast between self-focused attention and altruistic behavior as it relates to stress. Basically, altruistic behavior can promote a healthier, less-stressful lifestyle.
ALTRUISM SAVES THE DAY
Researchers have posited five reasons why altruism may promote a healthy lifestyle and less stress including: enhanced social integration, distraction from one’s own problems, heightened sense of life purpose and meaning, higher levels of perceived self-efficacy, and elevated mood or more physically active lifestyle (Post, 2005).
Enhanced Social Integration
Altruistic behavior may improve social relationships and social ties by reinforcing relationships. When someone invests selflessly in a relationship, it is a gesture that usually precipitates good will, and possibly friendship, from the recipient. This can enhance the quality of social interactions, leading to a strong and healthy network of socially supportive relationships. Social support, as defined within the context of religious affiliations specifically, may also provide comfort during stressful life events in at least two distinct ways. Regular attendees to a certain religious congregation gain a sense of belonging within a community; active membership in a church community can also involve individuals in meaningful service to others.
Distraction from One’s Own Problems
When an individual reaches out to others beyond the self-center, there is less attention given to one’s own problems. Shifting the focus from one’s own self, leaves less mental energy for dwelling on mistakes, shortcomings, failures, and other negative emotions. With a decrease in rumination, an individual would be more capable of engaging in more active forms of stress-coping (i.e., problem solving) because the focus and emotional energy would not be self-absorbed.
Purpose and Meaning
A heightened sense of life purpose or meaning may also serve as a positive result from altruistic behavior. A recurring theme in stress research is that individuals search for meaning that they can assign to stressful events (Thompson, 1981). These assigned meanings can determine and shape the ability to cope with stressful life events. For example, a parent who is dissatisfied with his job or place of employment may be able to cope with the work-stress by seeing it as a means to an end. Though working on a factory line might not be what someone finds intrinsically rewarding, providing for one’s family is a meaningful and noble cause. This type of altruistic attitude can inspire people to suffer through miserable circumstances if tolerating the stress means that it will benefit the people they love most. By mentally reframing the meaning of a mundane job to something virtuous, an individual may cope with the stress more effectively.
When people invest their time in pursuit of virtue, (i.e., service to others), they may also experience a higher sense of self-efficacy. Gaining the confidence that you can have a positive effect on someone else can produce a sense of achievement and a sense that one’s life is making a positive, measurable difference in the lives of others. Rather than responding to a natural disaster with fear and dread, many people respond by donating to relief agencies or even volunteering to serve the affected region in some way. This can provide a sense of efficacy that, although we can not control natural disasters and tragedies, we can control how we respond. We can choose to respond in a way that promotes positive outcomes for others.
Elevated Mood/Physical Activity
When people are focused on what good they can do for others, their service contribution is often action-oriented. Though the activity may be less than a vigorous work-out, it is probably more calorie burning than common solo, sedentary past-times such as watching television, reading, or spending time on the internet. Even if the service role that one plays is more of a planning contribution than a physical service contribution, living a virtuous, others-centered life may elevate the mood and redirect one’s attention from unhealthy mental (ruminating) or physical (stress- or boredom-induced binge-eating) habits.
Much of the research shows that living a less self-focused life can produce healthier outcomes. With more mental energy devoted to virtuous behaviors such as helping others and caring for others, individuals are less likely to ruminate. Living a life that is altruistic and focused on others’ well-being can reduce the impact of stressful life events. A focus on others can lead to healthier stress-coping habits, and it can enhance the quality of life overall. By increasing the amount and duration of positive emotions a person experiences, living an altruistic, virtuous life may buffer people from the negative impacts of stress.
Of course, healthy attention should be given to one’s own thoughts and problems; this is not to say that people should ignore being healthily introspective. I think it is really important for people to take time to reflect and self-improve, to strengthen one’s own character and develop a consistent, authentic personality. I just think it’s interesting to note that being others-centered can help alleviate stress and help people to avoid unhealthy obsessing. It’s an obvious point, really; if you only focus on yourself, that’s not the best.
Post, S.G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 12(2):66-77.
Thompson, S.C. (1981). Will it hurt less if I can control it? A complex answer to a simple question. Psychological Bulletin. 90:89-101.
Wood, J.V. et al. (1990). Self-focused attention, coping responses, and distressed mood in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 58(6):1027-1036.