To Your Mental Health: Many Happy Returns

Acts of kindness have a positive effect on everyone

By Jason Florin | Columnist

In the world of finance, “return on investment” is a measurement of how well your initial investment has paid off in the long-run. We don’t usually apply the same concept to emotional payoffs, but there is one fascinating way that a simple, low-risk investment can produce huge dividends.

One good deed, three happy brains

When we engage in an act of kindness, a chain reaction occurs. To begin with, the person doing the act (holding a door, helping carry groceries, even offering a genuine “thank you”) gets an instant boost in the form of the brain chemicals oxytocin and serotonin. Oxytocin helps reduce stress and promote bonding, while melatonin boosts the immune system and may improve sleep.

As an added bonus, the recipient of your act of kindness experiences an almost identical surge of these positive chemical messages. He or she gets a free power-up because of your behavior.

The feel-good train doesn’t stop here, though. Amazingly, what researchers have found is that a third-party bystander, someone who merely observes the act without any direct involvement, also experiences a similar chemical reward. By simply witnessing a positive act, a total stranger can benefit from your actions.

What this means is that you don’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to make a profound impact. In fact, the smallest act of generosity pays off three-fold, reaching others through the magic of neurons.

Easy as A-B-C

What about the times when we’re off our game, when even the thought of a polite smile to a stranger feels like a Herculean task? Yes, there’s an app for that – a simple self-application tool that can be used in almost any trying situation.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the field of psychotherapy began changing rapidly. Traditional Freudian analysis was pushed out in favor of more active and practical ways of making life changes. One of the notable figures from this era is Albert Ellis, who created a cognitive approach to promoting change. To combine the concepts of the approach into a simple format, Ellis developed an A-B-C model.

Let’s apply the ABC model to one of the most commonly frustrating situations – driving. Somehow the road is always full of hundreds of terrible drivers, plus you. Imagine for a moment that you’re driving, and you feel good. The radio is playing a catchy song, your favorite drink is sitting right next to you and the road ahead is clear.

Suddenly, you see a car pull up next to you, driving aggressively. The driver rides the car in front of him, then begins eyeing your lane.

Without warning, he lurches ahead of you, just a few feet separating your cars. You are forced to hit the brakes, and the Zen mood is gone in an instant. You honk your horn, ride his tail for the next half-mile, and when he looks into his rearview mirror, you let him know who’s No. 1.

Ellis labels the activating event, in this case the other driver, as the A in the formula. He calls your reaction (honking, cursing and tailgating) the consequence, or C. We tend to assume that the consequence is a direct result of the event, that A causes C. However, there is a critical piece in between A and C, which is a B, our beliefs.  It turns out that not everyone reacts the same way to this situation. The difference is in the way we think about the event. If we say “He has no right; I’ll show him,” we are setting ourselves up for an extreme emotional and behavioral consequence that could end in more harm. On the other hand, if we replace that old thought with a message like “It’s not worth it. Let it go,” our response becomes healthier, which is good for our own sanity, as well as everyone on the road.

In a world where it’s easy to feel disconnected from one another and to grow discouraged by the struggles we see daily, there is still a way to spread positivity, or at least to avoid a potentially painful negative reaction. Either way, it’s an investment that pays an unbeatable rate of interest.

Jason Florin has 15 years of experience working in mental health and substance abuse treatment. He is currently an assistant professor and coordinator of Human Services at College of DuPage. He holds a master’s degree in Health Science from Governors State University, in addition to national and state certifications in addictions counseling. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent any other institution or organization.

One thought on “To Your Mental Health: Many Happy Returns

  1. eugene

    Hello Mr. Florin,
    Thank you. The explanation of ‘one good deed, three happy brains’ was simple to understand and very helpful as was the use of ‘driving’ in the A-B-C model.
    For what it’s worth, I thought about forwarding this link to family and friends, but noted that a definition of ‘the cognitive approach’ in the second paragraph (Easy as A-B-C) would be helpful introduction to those unfamiliar with such a term (e.g. my 80+ y.o. parents). As of yet, they don’t behave in a way that reflects their understanding that their thoughts determine their feelings and behaviors. Of course, I can forward them the link with the preface of a definition for the cognitive approach

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