Several years ago, in the midst of the bitter, wounding slog that was the 2016 election season, it became apparent to anyone paying attention that we had entered a new whole epoch in America, and I’m not talking about politics.
The Era of Self-Care wasn’t born so much as a cure for the country’s ills as it was a Band-Aid for our beaten-down spirits. There we were as a nation, roiling and reeling, torn up and tired and angry; here was Twitter, saying, Maybe take a bath?
And we did. After that, what began as the coping mechanism of a moment morphed into a full-fledged movement. One day, social media was its usual melange of bile and baby pics; the next, it was the world’s largest self-help aisle—a meme-filled universe where everyone suddenly sounded like a yoga teacher, and everything from caring for your mental health to napping to giving up your bikini wax was framed as a vital, even sacred means toward soothing the angsty inner turmoil of a nation.
It seems like this is the perfect moment for the inverse lesson to now take hold in our hearts: Caring for the group is also caring for ourselves. We are the group. The group is us.
And then came Covid, and whoosh: self-care’s share in the zeitgeist grew exponentially. This was both understandable (who else, in isolation, if not yourself?) and also quite helpful in the beginning stages of the pandemic, suggests Jamil Zaki, who is a psychology professor at Stanford and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. But that moment has passed, and these days, he argued in a recent piece for The Atlantic, it’s time for a shift in the self-care paradigm.
You see, he explains, self-care can be—and probably was—really great for softening the type of “profound distress” that “saturated people’s lives in the spring of 2020.” Our mental-health problems peaked in those early days, he says … and then subsided. These days, we’re still suffering, he acknowledges, but we’re suffering differently. We’re disconnected. Stalled. Alienated. Tired. Lonely. Bummed. We’re languishing, Zaki says, borrowing from Adam Grant.
And the antidote to languishing isn’t self-care, he argues. It’s other-care. Turning our attention to being helpers.
Sound trite? Maybe. It’s also science.
How to make the switch from self-care to other-care
In one of several studies Zaki points to in his piece, test subjects assigned to spend money on other people were more likely to agree that their life had “a clear sense of purpose” than the subjects who were asked to spend money on themselves. Same thing happened in other similar experiments, he says, when people had the opportunity to focus on others rather than simply themselves.
Not that this is breaking news. Everyone from St. Francis of Assisi to Oprah has told us this; countless studies beyond Zaki’s have shown that helping others makes us happier and helps us achieve more. Even without the piles of evidence, we know this in our gut, don’t we? It’s why people in times of crisis are so desperate to show up and help.
What we don’t understand so instinctively or thoroughly, though, is how to channel this knowledge in a practical way as individuals or as a society. How might we move the needle from self-care over toward other-care?
Zaki has ideas about this. In Covid, he notes, we saw the rise of “self-care days” from some employers—a.k.a. personal days. He thinks we should complement these days with “other-care” days, too, which are “earmarked to zero in on positive effects we can have on someone else.”
We’re languishing, Zaki says, borrowing from Adam Grant. And the antidote to languishing isn’t self-care, he argues. It’s other-care. Turning our attention to being helpers. Sound trite? Maybe. It’s also science.
Some Philly companies are already doing a version of this. Health care management consulting firm Vynamic, for example, has a “choose your own community adventure” program, wherein groups of employees choose service activities to do together each summer.
Other prominent employers, including Independence Blue Cross and Seer Interactive (the digital marketing firm run by founder and Philly changemaker Wil Reynods), offer paid time off for participating in company volunteering initiatives. Seer also gives monthly donations to charities of employees who have spent time volunteering, and Reynolds is working on ways to further encourage and incentivize individual volunteering for employees. GlaxoSmithKline offers one paid day off a year for individual volunteering, which is no big shakes, but the company also allows some employees to take 3 to 6 months “off” to volunteer at a chosen nonprofit.
Still, just imagine if built-in other-care days were the norm everywhere, as run-of-the-mill as personal days, so that even the busiest workers in any given sector would have the chance to tap into serving their community in a way that restored them, that brought them deeper personal sense of meaning and connection. Unlike a single group day of service, Zaki writes, individual other-care days would “shift from grand collective gestures to personal habits of helping,” and turn “kindness into an act of self-expression.” And that, he says, would “transform our everyday helping and recuperate its meaning.” And that meaning, he says, is an antidote to languishing.
Caring for the group is also caring for ourselves
He also wisely accounts for those people who have done nothing but connect and serve others during Covid—talking to you, teachers, first responders and vital-sector workers. Even these careworn and burned-out professionals could still benefit from days off to serve differently, Zaki argues: It’s a question of time and freedom to choose what sort of activity might fulfill them, rather than simply be one more responsibility. It’s a question of “making space for intention.”
Along these lines, it’s easy to also make the case that students might benefit from other-care days, too. I’m thinking of our children, who have lost so much sense of connection, community and togetherness with each other and with their world over these past few years. What might a day or week of service with a friend or parent or teacher teach them? What might a City Year model, or even just a sliver of that model, do for more children right now? What perspective can other-days bring, what connections might they foster, what sparks might they ignite, what friendships could be born? We can’t replace what they’ve lost, but we can give them new ways to cope and reconnect.
In the end, though, I think the most transformative idea Zaki spotlights is on an individual level, a reframing in our own minds about other-care, and how it’s so deeply connected to our own well-being that the line between other and self is, as Zaki puts it, “blurrier than we might realize.”
“Other-care is the necessary sequel to the self-care craze; it’s the answer to everything that turning inward (or slapping on a face mask) hasn’t answered, because it can’t.”
This makes even more sense when you understand, as Zaki does, that originally, self-care was born out of a long-term focus on the wellbeing of the group, on others. The seeds of self-care were planted by Black female activists, women who understood that the act of caring for themselves was defiance against the oppression that denied their personhood; self-care was therefore also about changing life for an entire segment of humanity.
Fast forward to the now, when the idea of self-care is not only pervasive far beyond the activist set, but has been so madly muddled and marketed over the years (ahem) that it’s a different beast entirely. Not all bad, of course (self-care is, as Zaki writes, “vital,” and anyway, who can argue with the increase in attention paid to our mental health?), but it nevertheless seems like this is the perfect moment for the inverse lesson to now take hold in our hearts: Caring for the group is also caring for ourselves. We are the group. The group is us.
The truth here is that other-care days aren’t just about duty, or altruism, or following in the footsteps of our heroes—of course, those motivations are great and important, too. But other-care days are about those beaten-down spirits that we’ve spent years now trying to mend. Other-care is the necessary sequel to the self-care craze; it’s the answer to everything that turning inward (or slapping on a face mask, or whatever) hasn’t answered, because it can’t.
Zaki frames other-care days as a way out of Covid malaise. I think they’re that and more. What the pandemic did was show us how connected we all really are to one another, how reliant we are on each other for happiness and well-being and fulfillment. It’s a lesson we badly needed long before Covid crashed into our lives. And now that we’ve learned it the hard (long, boring, painful) way, we just need to act like it.
Header photo by Jem Sahagun / Unsplash