I’m on stage in Atlanta facing 350 awards-banquet attendees. I start my keynote by asking participants to assess how anxious they are on a scale of one to ten, with one being “not at all” and ten being “extremely.” Then I ask them to do a work-related charitable act that takes no more than five minutes and costs no more than $5. At first, I get quizzical looks. But soon the ballroom buzzes with people posting a LinkedIn testimonial for a laid-off colleague, donating to a coworker’s fundraising run or calling their receptionist to thank him for his positive attitude.
At the conclusion of the five minutes, I ask participants to, again, note their level of anxiety using the same scale. I then ask those whose anxiety increased to please stand. One woman stands, less than 1 percent of the audience. I apologize for having increased her anxiety and promise her a bar of chocolate. I then ask those whose anxiety remained the same to stand. Approximately 20 percent of attendees stand up. Finally, I ask those whose anxiety dropped to stand. The entire rest of the room, approximately 80 percent of participants, stand up. As if to drive the point home, many are smiling and a few holler “woo hoo,” “yippee” or some other jolliness.
Atlanta residents are among the most hospitable in the world, but that’s not the reason this audience responded so positively to my quirky pre-post test. In fact, I’ve conducted the above exercise in Saint Paul, Los Angeles, Madrid, New York, London, Mexico City, Toronto and the District of Columbia. In every case, the vast majority of participants reported a reduction in anxiety after their simple act of social purpose.
The reason my audience members experienced a reduction in anxiety is physiology. Scientists have actually been able to see, via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that acts of social purpose reduce the stress response in the brain. Furthermore, researchers from Cornell University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Yale University, and several other academic institutions found that among people experiencing the same stressors, such as final exams and financial woes, those who pursued social purpose felt, on average, less stressed. By posting recommendations, saying kind words or otherwise making small contributions to others, my audience members literally relaxed their brains. The stress-reduction effect of social purpose actions is one reason that Alan Rozanski (there are other health effects that I will cover in a future post), a cardiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says that “the need for meaning and purpose is…the deepest driver of wellbeing there is.”
Nevertheless, my experience is that no matter how many studies I cite and experts I quote, many people can’t fathom how a simple act of charity can have such a powerful and instant effect on anxiety—until they live it. Frankly, when I started looking into the body of evidence linking anxiety to lack of social purpose I disbelieved it.
I, therefore, encourage you to spend the next five minutes replicating my keynote exercise: Assess your level of anxiety on the ten-point scale, do a small act of social purpose and assess your level of anxiety again. Let me know what you did and how it went! And, yes, I’ll send you chocolate if your anxiety happened to increase. It’s extremely unlikely, though. What’s most likely is that some of your anxiety will vanish. Even if it doesn’t (typically because you weren’t anxious to begin with), your effort wasn’t wasted. You will have brightened the world, at least a tiny bit!
Tristen K. Inagaki, Kate E Bryne Haltom, Shosuke Suzuki, Ivana Jevtic, Erica Hornstein, Julienne E. Bower, Naomi I Eisenberger, “The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward–Related Neural Activity, Psychosomatic Medicine 78 no. 4 (May 2016): 443–453.
Patrick L. Hill, et al., “Sense of Purpose Moderates the Associations Between Daily Stressors and Daily Well-being,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 52, no. 8 (August 2018): 724–729; Elizabeth B. Raposa, Holly B. Laws and Emily B. Ansell, “Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life,” Clinical Psychological Science 4, no. 4 (December 10, 2015): 691-698; and Jina Park and Roy F. Baumeister, “Meaning in Life and Adjustment to Daily Stressors,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 12, no. 4 (2017): 333-341.