How helping others through major life transitions could be a pathway to greater well-being
Nearly 2.5 million students began post-secondary studies in Canada in September. The start of college is an exciting time, filled with new friendships, information, and routines. Yet the transition can also be stressful, with students facing unfamiliar challenges and adopting different identities.
What can help support student well-being during this life transition? While various strategies encourage people to focus on self-help through exercise, nutrition, or mindfulness, our research examines the importance of engaging in daily acts of kindness toward others.
One of the authors of this story, Lara, researches whether helping can promote caregiver happiness and leads the Helping and Happiness Lab at Simon Fraser University. Tiara’s doctoral work examines whether helping and kindness can improve mental health during major life changes, such as the start of post-secondary education.
Engage in charitable actions
Numerous international surveys reveal that people who engage in caring actions, such as volunteering and donating to charity, also report greater well-being.
Similarly, in experiments, people who buy small treats for others feel happier afterwards than people who buy the same small treats for themselves.
Helping others has been shown to promote happiness in a wide variety of different groups, including toddlers under the age of two and recent ex-offenders. Some research has examined how people in poor and rich countries derive emotional benefits from helping others with their financial resources.
But does helping lead to happiness even when caregivers face personal challenges and stress, such as during a big life change like entering college?
Reduce daily stress
Some evidence suggests this is possible. One study found that the effects of everyday stress were reduced when participants engaged in higher levels of kindness or generosity.
However, life transitions, like starting college, can lead to higher and longer-lasting stress than everyday.
To determine whether giving to others can promote mental health early in post-secondary education, we asked nearly 200 students in the fall of 2020 and 2021 at Simon Fraser University to report their daily acts of kindness and wellness each week for most of their first semester.
Consistent with predictions, our research, which is currently being written up for peer review, found that students experienced greater personal happiness, optimism and resilience as well as decreased anxiety over the same weeks in which they did more acts of kindness.
It should be noted that meaningful acts of kindness were relatively small, inexpensive (or free), and familiar. For example, students reported sharing notes with their peers, holding the door open for someone walking behind them, and helping to edit an essay or assignment.
Self-care and more
However, these findings may come as a surprise. During stress and change, people are often advised to focus on themselves by practicing self-care by taking care of themselves.
Our data suggests that this advice may also be helpful. Students in our sample also reported greater well-being during weeks when they took more care of themselves, including exercising, spending time with friends, or talking with their family.
However, our research offers an additional and probably overlooked pathway to wellness during life’s transitions: looking outward to help others. Why not practice complimenting a classmate, sharing tips on where to find parking, or even picking up trash on the way to class?
Given the positive benefits of volunteering, institutions might consider promoting first-semester volunteering activities alongside other first-year supports.
New routines after COVID-19
We continue to explore this question with additional studies and samples. For example, we are running a five-week experiment in which incoming students are asked to perform acts of kindness for themselves or others during the first few weeks of their first semester of post-secondary education.
The question of whether helping others can lead to happiness during a major life transition is broadly relevant as millions of people start new jobs, move to new cities, or adjust to new routines at home. following COVID-19.
Our research offers a poignant reminder that helping others can also have the benefit of helping yourself, even in times of uncertainty and change.