This week is mental health awareness week and the focus is on being kind. But why be kind if we’re trying to look after our own mental health?
Being kind not only benefits those we are kind to but also ourselves. Giving and sharing with others is part of what makes us human and has huge psychological and physiological benefits. Being kind is not just good for the person you’re helping but it’s good for you too.
In my new book Mirror Thinking I talk about role-modelling and how so much of what we inadvertently learn from the day we are born to the day we die comes from watching other people’s behaviour and their emotional responses. This is true for example with pro-social behaviour. Even teenagers who are renowned for being influenced by the negative tactics of peers are more pro-social if they see their friends being.
Prosocial behaviour, which includes role-modelling in order to help others see how to behave, is becoming more widely recognised as a vehicle for improved mental health and well-being across society. Significant evidence shows that focusing on other people rather than ourselves consistently makes us happier. Katherine Nelson, an American developmental psychologist, published research in the journal Emotion that contrasted the mood and well- being boosting effects of prosocial behaviour with self-orientated behaviour over a six-week period. The 2015 study, which included 472 people, found that prosocial behaviour led to significantly bigger increases in ‘psychological flourishing’ than the self-focused group. Flourishing in this context means positive emotional well-being, high life satisfaction, good relationships with others, being socially accepted and having a sense of purpose in life.
A 2017 study carried out by Jennifer Crocker, professor of social psychology at the University of Ohio, points to similar findings. Crocker explained that as humans we are ‘hardwired’ to promote both self-interest and concern for others depending on our survival situation. From an evolutionary perspective self-interest came into play when fleeing a predator, but survival at a species level meant depending on each other to live in cooperative groups, helping one another to remain safe. She explained that we are constructed in a way that means ‘giving to others can be rewarding despite its obvious material costs, and selfishness can be costly despite its immediate material benefits. In other words, humans should be psychologically disposed to find benefits in giving that counterbalance the costs.’
Crocker’s review shows that in the majority of everyday situations giving benefits our psychological well-being, physical health and the quality of our relationships. She proposes that the mechanisms that enable this include positive affect (i.e. a more optimistic outlook), increased confidence, a greater sense of connection to others and a clearer sense of purpose.
Susan Whitbourne, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, showed that making a difference to the lives of others is one of the key aspects to fulfilment. She explored happiness levels in midlife adults and found that no matter what their job, those who reached out to younger people and helped them overcome life obstacles were most fulfilled.9 In other words those people who were involved with some sort of role-modelling experienced the greatest levels of happiness.10 Even the act of volunteering to be a role model improves well-being, leading to better self- health ratings, increased life satisfaction, decreased mortality, higher levels of contentment and lower levels of depressive symptoms.
It really is worth being kind. Even at the times when you don’t really feel like it or when the world is pushing you in the other direction. Kindness (together with many other behaviours and emotions) can spread in a similar way to a pandemic, but sometimes to make that happen means pushing against the systems and complexity of the world around us. If we do it can have massive returns both for us and for others. And who doesn’t want to have a positive impact on the world.
Extract adapted from my book Mirror Thinking – How Role Models Make Us Human which is out in July but available for pre-order at:
Amazon UK https://amzn.to/2yKpf4j
Amazon USA and Canada https://amzn.to/2TsjiR9
Barnes & Noble (USA) https://bit.ly/3bRZyN4
Chapters (Canada) https://bit.ly/2zU8Drx
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