The Best Self-Care Is Caring for Others

5 min read

In a world where fervid encouragement to engage in self-care is being spread in every medium available, from commercials, social media sites, self-care guidebooks, and therapists’ offices, to name a few, perhaps we’d all benefit from having a clear understanding of what effective self-care looks like.

If you do a quick online search for “self-care ideas,” most of the ideas focus on highly individual activities where the focus is on creature comforts or giving yourself permission to escape from the daily grind or a difficult relationship for a bit. Massages feel great, binge-watching your favorite comedy while devouring your favorite decadent treat using a “guilt-free mindset” can feel amazing, and long solitary walks through a favorite park or coastline also are emotionally healing. Saying “no” to support your boundaries is great self-care, too. Most self-care activities will bring momentary pleasure, but the overall effect lacks some of the staying power of prosocial-focused caring activities.

Why Self-Care Has Such a Short Shelf-Life

The activities we tend to associate with self-care are often heavily focused on self-indulgence and it can be hard for some people to feel justified in making this space for themselves or investing the necessary funds into accessing self-care pleasures. So, there may be a psychological bump in the road that needs to be overcome and the resulting dissonance may undo the emotional pleasure that an act of self-care should generate. In addition, self-care is often focused on sensory pleasure, or emotional de-cluttering, but not so often on others’ well-being.

Sensory pleasures are fleeting, sadly, and the amazing massage you had last week needs to be repeated to really help those tense muscles unwind this week. One study found that engaging in activities that illustrate kindness to oneself did not positively affect emotional psychological flourishing; in fact, self-focused kindness led to an immediate and slight decline in flourishing before returning to a baseline level.

When Is Prosocial Care a Better Investment?

In a study by Nelson et al. (2016), it was revealed that doing nice things for others actually increases psychological flourishing and that good feelings that come from helping others tend to last a longer while. Prosocial behavior is all about engagement, connection, and cementing that feeling of community and support. When we do something kind for someone else, our brains reward us with dopamine, which makes us feel good, and serotonin, which calms us. The brain effectively developed an in-house reward system for altruistic, prosocial behavior. It’s truly what sets us apart from other species (Raghanti et al., 2018).

Bursts of Micro-Joy Change Our Perspectives, Too

The Big Joy research study found that people who engage in micro-joy events every day are 25 percent happier than those who don’t. Several of the activities that the study includes are prosocial activities designed to help others, which magically give us a micro-burst of joy. Even if you’re making an anonymous donation to a good cause, doing a favor for a stranger, or wheeling up the trashcans for your out-of-town neighbors, the good you are doing is acknowledged and rewarded by your brain. When you share a smile with someone on the street and they smile back, you get that same reward. It pays off in all the good “feels” when you do something for someone else. Here are ten ways to care for yourself by caring for others:

10 Ways to Get Your Micro-Joy Burst

  1. Make space for someone to merge in front of you onto the highway and give them a smile as they realize you’re allowing them to merge on into the lane.
  2. If you’re short on cash and know you can’t “pay it backwards” for the next person in line behind you in the coffee shop, let them go in front of you and get their java a little quicker. Smile and let them know that you’re not in a hurry today.
  3. If there’s a “little library” in your vicinity, leave a copy of a book that you especially enjoyed and leave an anonymous note mentioning how much it meant to you.
  4. Roll up your neighbor’s garbage cans if they’re not yet back from work and it’s already getting dark outside.
  5. “Accidentally” buy two of some delicacy or special treat you enjoy at a special time of year and take it to a neighbor who doesn’t get out much and pass along the “accidentally” purchased second item to them.
  6. Leave a positive review online about a business that gave you great service—compliment the employee who went above and beyond or the patience of the front desk person who was inundated with phone calls.
  7. Take time to strike up a conversation with the neighbor who’s usually taciturn—or who thinks you might be. Whether it’s while you’re doing yard work, getting the mail, or heading out for your evening walk, make it a point to stop and chat for a few minutes.
  8. Compliment a co-worker—tell them how well they just ran a meeting, how quickly they turned around a difficult project, or how pleasant it is to work alongside them.
  9. Let someone have that parking place you were eyeing—and send them a wave so they know you’re willing to yield to them.
  10. Smile warmly, not unnaturally, at people in the grocery store or the drug store, and when they smile back, feel that micro-burst of happiness.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. It’s just that simple.

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