The holidays will soon be upon us. What is likely to make you feel better — receiving a gift, or giving one to someone in need? Research is clear that, as the proverb goes, it’s better to give than to receive.
“Doing kind things makes you feel better,” said Andrew Miles, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. “It fulfills a basic psychological need, like giving our bodies appropriate food. It helps you feel like your life is valuable.”
Dr. Miles is currently leading a large, controlled study aiming to quantify the ways in which doing good may help to counter the anxiety and depression that currently undermines the health and well-being of many people in all walks of life.
And the need for kindness may have never been greater. The economic, educational and vocational stresses associated with the pandemic continue to take a toll. In addition, the media, the internet, and even neighborhood streets are often filled with physical threats and hateful remarks directed at large segments of the population.
Although members of minority groups, be they racial, ethnic, religious or sexual, are increasingly willing to speak out against verbal and physical attacks and discrimination, many targeted individuals continue to suffer in silence. Little wonder that rates of anxiety and depression remain high.
Children, who can readily sense the emotional distress of their caregivers, often share the pain. But experts say there’s an antidote that could benefit everyone. They call it “prosocial behavior,” or acting in ways that help other people.
In her recently published book, “Social Justice Parenting,” Traci Baxley, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University, emphasizes the rewards of teaching compassion and kindness to a new generation. Her goal in fostering a more just world for all is to raise children “who can ultimately self-advocate, empathize with others, recognize injustice, and become proactive in changing it.”
Her book, which I found hard to put down, is replete with excellent examples and advice that can help parents raise children with a healthy self-image and regard for the welfare of others. She wrote, “It is our obligation to teach our children to stand up and be allies for groups that are marginalized and silenced.”
Dr. Baxley, the mother of five children, told me that upon returning to school after the pandemic lockdown, many young people experienced an increase in depression and social anxiety that can be counteracted by prosocial behavior. “Just seeing compassion and kindness in action releases chemicals in the brain that helps them calm down,” she said. “It slows the heart rate and releases serotonin that counters symptoms of depression.”
Prosocial behavior may come naturally to some. Even children as young as 2 or 3 may spontaneously share a treat or toy with an unhappy playmate. But most children likely need to learn it from the same people who teach them to say “please” and “thank you,” and the earlier in life that happens, the better.
For starters, prosocial behavior requires compassion and empathy, the ability to recognize and care about the needs and well-being of others. But compassion without constructive follow-up benefits no one. Step two is kindness, a.k.a., compassion in action. You may be distressed to see an elderly person struggling with heavy packages, but unless you offer to help or at least express a wish to help but explain why you can’t, your compassion goes to waste.
One of my proudest moments as a grandmother was learning that a grandson, then in first grade, comforted a classmate who’d become motion sick on a school bus trip. While other children on the bus moved away in disgust, my grandson put his arm on the ill child and asked if he felt better.