In this age of rancor and hatred, it seems more important than ever to make this a year of kindness and civility. We’ve seen a rise in hate crimes, bullying in the schools, and xenophobia that is hard to stomach sometimes. However, we can each be individually responsible for how we conduct our lives and how we want to be in the world. There is not just a benefit to society in being kind to others; we also stand to gain individually by turning our focus outward and helping our fellow human beings. Some social theorists such as Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin believed that we are hardwired for selfishness, competition, and ruthless egoism. However, other theorists state that altruism “flies in the face of” theories that we are programmed genetically to be selfish. Instead is survival of the fittest, we’re just as naturally inclined toward social resilience. Social resilience is defined as “’ the capacity to foster, engage in, and sustain positive social relationships and to endure and recover from stressors and social isolation’” (John Cacioppo, quoted in Seligman, 2011, p. 146). The same author just quoted argues that we survive as humans because we work together and combine our strengths and resources to help one another. Seligman gives further examples in the animal and insect kingdom of how working cooperatively both productivity and survival.
There is also evidence that volunteering can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being kind to others takes the focus off of one’s own inner strife, as well as develops skills and social networks that buffer stress. In addition, volunteering and kindness engage a person in meaningful activity, which can be described as a “flow” state. Flow is described as “the experience of working at full capacity,” in which a person uses challenge and skill to accomplish something that is rewarding at a deeper level than immediate gratification (Peterson, 2006, page 67). In a flow state, we can lose track of time because we are so absorbed in what we’re doing; athletes describe it as being “in the zone.” Of course, when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, we naturally want to avoid other people. There’s a strong tendency to get trapped in inaction and avoidance. Milton Erickson helped a wealthy lady who was depressed overcome her isolation by prescribing altruism to the members of her church. He told her to get some potting soil and to give African violets to all the members of her church for every major life event; this not only increased her social interaction, but engaged her in an activity that she loved (caring for and raising flowers). Instead of just keeping all of her flowers for herself, she reached out and blessed her community with kindness and generosity. They repaid her favor with their love and appreciation. This is one small example of how you can be involved with other people in an informal, yet meaningful way.
Some people may say, “I don’t have the time for this” or “I don’t have the energy.” If you consider the act of being depressed or anxious, and you consider how exhausting it is to feel fear, self-loathing, and concoct negative scenarios from the past or future, you might argue that you already have plenty of energy that is being directed at self-sabotaging pursuits. How would you use that energy if it weren’t engaged in these negative pursuits? You don’t necessarily have to volunteer 40 to 100 hours per year, although that can definitely boost the positive effects of volunteering. Consider small ways that you can help people you know already. Maybe someone just needs a phone call and to know that someone cares about them. Perhaps an elderly or disabled person in the neighborhood needs help with housework or yard work. There are many ways to reach out beyond yourself and to be kind, so much so that you might find yourself enjoying it more and more. I encourage you to think of ways to help other people, or even animals or the environment. Ultimately, they are all part of the web of existence and our actions come back to us and sometimes unexpected ways.
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.