College freshmen who set goals for helping others (like their roommates) are less likely to feel symptoms of anxiety or stress during the freshmen year. Those whose goals are focused on themselves, particularly regarding self-image, are more likely to experience these negative feelings.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, recently followed two groups of college students, each for 12 weeks. They had the students fill out weekly surveys to reveal their interpersonal goals, changes in those goals, and their levels of anxiety or dysphoria.
The results found that the freshmen who generally had goals that had to do with helping others were likely to feel less anxiety at the end of the study compared to the beginning. Those new college students who had set goals that were primarily about their own self-image were likely to feel more anxiety or dysphoria over the course of the semester. This was true whether or not the goals had been successfully achieved.
The researchers also found an interesting feedback loop that might explain why the new students who were focused on others did better. Those who focused their own attention on giving support to others were more likely to receive support in return. In addition to feeling good about helping others, then, the students who focused on compassionate goals had a support network in place to help them deal with problems that might create anxiety. This effect was more pronounced for female students than for male students.
Students who were primarily focused on themselves and their self-image were less likely to receive support. Naturally, this would tend to increase distress when difficulties were encountered. In addition, feeling anxious or distressed makes people less likely to set those outward-focused goals, creating a downward spiral of negativity.
Although the study focused on college students, it was concluded the results may apply in almost any aspect of life.