What’s Missing From Our Conversation on Self-Care

Giving is like a self-care miracle drug.

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Self-care is the biggest trend in well-being. There’s #SelfCare Sunday. Self-care on campus. Self-care while traveling. And that’s great — self-care is incredibly important. It’s the foundation of well-being and it’s a big part of the mission of Thrive Global. But often lost in discussion is one of our most powerful tools for self-care: caring for others. Giving — going beyond ourselves and stepping out of our comfort zones to serve others — is one of the most effective and proven ways to boost our well-being, transforming the giver as much as the recipient.

When our whole world shrinks down to just ourselves — a state very easy to come about in a world that encourages it — the smallest problems or reversals of fortunes throw us. Our entire narrative is just us. And so our entire state of being rises and falls with that narrative. But when we include others in that narrative and widen the circle of our concern, we’re less concerned with the self — it is much easier to gain perspective, to gain empathy, and to find gratitude. That has huge consequences for our mental health, making us much more effective at dealing with stress, anxiety and even depression.

There’s a reason why in practically every religious and spiritual tradition, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to fulfillment. “The generous person will prosper, and whoever refreshes others will himself be refreshed,” reads Proverbs. “Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires,” says Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. And in Acts, Jesus says that “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.” In 63 A.D. Seneca wrote that “No one can live happily who has regard for himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.” Or, as a more modern day sage, David Letterman, put it in 2013 A.D.: “I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.”

And science has validated the idea again and again. One study found that volunteering at least once a week gives you the same boost to well-being as a salary increase from $20,000 to $75,000. A Harvard Business School study showed that “donating to charity has a similar relationship to subjective well-being as a doubling of household income.” The same study found that students who were told to spend a small amount of money on someone else were happier than students who were told to spend it on themselves.

And the effect doesn’t just come from the idea of donating some money — it comes from the connection enabled by the giving. In one study, researchers from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School gave participants $10 gift cards. One group was instructed to spend it on themselves. Another was instructed to give it to someone else to spend at Starbucks, but not go with them. And the third was told to give them to someone else and go with them to Starbucks to spend it. The result? In the words of the authors, “participants who spent on others in a way that allowed for social connection experienced the highest levels of happiness at the end of the day.”

A study led by researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School found that volunteering was connected to lower rates of depression, higher self-reported levels of well-being and a significant reduction in mortality risk. The latter was confirmed by researchers from the University of Michigan who, analyzing data going back to 1957, found that those who volunteered lived longer than those who didn’t.

In fact, we’re so hard-wired to give that our genes reward us for it — and punish us when we don’t. A study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and UCLA found that participants whose happiness was mostly hedonic (i.e., focused on self-gratification) had high levels of biological markers that promote inflammation and which are linked to diabetes, cancer and other conditions. Participants whose happiness included service to others had health profiles with reduced levels of the same markers. Of course, everybody experiences a mixture of both kinds of happiness, but our bodies’ internal systems are subtly pushing us to seek out the kind based on giving. Our bodies know what we need to do to nurture our well-being, even if our minds — and our overly crammed schedules — don’t always get the message.

And if you think your never-ending to-do list — or what researchers call the feeling of “time famine” — makes it impossible to fit a regular practice of giving into your life, well, giving has an answer to that, too. One of my favorite studies from the Wharton, Yale and Harvard business schools compared three groups of participants: one that wasted time, one that spent time on themselves, and one that gave their time away doing something for someone else. As it turned out, the third group had significantly higher feelings of “time affluence” — by giving their time away, they literally felt like they had created more time in their lives. And, even more fascinating, because of the boosted feelings of self-efficacy that helping others had given them, they were also more likely to commit to additional future engagements, even though they were very busy. So giving actually expanded their schedules, allowing them to fit more — both for themselves and for others — into their lives.

And it makes sense. Giving answers our fundamental need for human connection. I remember when a friend of mine lost her job after a successful career. It was a big blow, and she was having real trouble gathering the confidence to bounce back. I encouraged her to start volunteering and recommended A Place Called Home, which works with underserved young people in south central L.A. She found herself exposed to a whole other world, and one evening, sitting in a forgiveness circle, when her turn came, she forgave her daughter for forgetting her birthday — after which the girl next to her forgave her mother for shooting her father. It quickly put her disappointment and fear about the future in perspective. She saw firsthand that what people who are struggling economically need as well as money, food, clothing and material necessities is to feel that someone hears them and cares.

We see this in very obvious ways in the collective response to natural disasters. Whether it’s earthquakes, hurricanes or our appalling and endless parade of mass shootings. Soon after the event, we’ll see the stories of strangers helping strangers, and how it brought out the best in us and helped shake us out of our complacent, self-centered routines.

But we don’t need extreme events or natural disasters to spur us to tap into our natural humanity. After all, we know there are people in need all the time, in every city, in every community. Nor is giving just about going to homeless shelters and food banks — as important as those are. It’s also about giving whatever special skills and talents and passions you have. That can mean tutoring, mentoring, using our expertise to help a non-profit.

It’s about doing whatever we can to widen the circle of our concern. It’s not just good for the world, it’s good for us. And all we need is to just widen our definition of self-care. Because creating a healthy self-care routine includes making time to care for others. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.”

— Published on August 2, 2019

Published on
August 2, 2019
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