Why Taking Care of Your Own Well-Being Helps Others

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As Buddhist monk and psychologist Jack Kornfield once said in an interview, "cultivating a joyful spirit can actually help not only us but the people around us — especially when things are hard."

It’s a lovely sentiment supported by science. Study after study shows that well-being — either being in a positive mood or recognizing that we have a good life — benefits those in our social sphere, whether we’re talking about our families, workplaces, schools, or society at large. Here are some of the ways that pursuing our well-being could make a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Our Well-Being Is Contagious in Social Circles

Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have found that, in social networks, happiness can be contagious up to three degrees of separation from its initial source (you!). That means that when you are happy, the people you are connected to tend to be happier, as are the friends of those friends and the friends of your friends’ friends — like, for example, your sister’s boss’ running buddy. 

Happiness contagion can also happen in schools. One study found that a student’s individual well-being and happiness at the end of the school year partly depended on how happy and satisfied with life their classmates were earlier in the year. And it can happen at home in families and in workplaces, too. Our brains are pretty attuned to the emotions of those around us. Through a complex neural system sometimes referred to as “mirror neurons,” we experience the feelings of others inside ourselves. It’s why when we smile, it can make others smile, and when we laugh, it tickles other people’s funny bones. 

Our Well-Being Helps Us Bond With Others

Even when we’re isolated, good relationships are just as important as ever — offering the love, care, and connection we need during difficult times. 

In one experiment, researchers found that inducing happiness in individual romantic partners by showing them happy imagery made them feel better about their relationship. In another experiment, people expressing greater positive feelings tended to have more satisfying, less contentious marital discussions around conflicts, which could help couples stay together longer.

In a large review of these kinds of studies, authors Shannon Moore, Ed Diener, and Kenneth Tan suggested several possible ways that good feelings could contribute to relationship building, in both the short term and the long term. Among them are:

This suggests that there is some kind of reciprocal relationship between well-being and social bonds, which strengthens both.  

Our Well-Being Can Improve the Health of Others

It’s true that happiness seems to have positive effects on your health and longevity. Studies have found that happier people tend to have stronger immunity, maintain their weight better, and sleep better — which all, in turn, can lead to better health. 

Studies have found that when we’re happier, our spouses have better health and greater longevity, though the exact reasons for that are unclear. It could be that happier spouses have more energy for helping and supporting sick partners, as researcher Olga Stavrova speculates. But it could also be that a cheerful spouse makes their partner feel happier or less stressed, and that’s what indirectly makes them healthier.

Our Well-Being Helps Us Engage in Social Problems and Help the World

As one study found, happier people are more likely to care about the problems of the world and to take action to alleviate suffering — perhaps because they have more personal agency and energy to do so. Another study in Germany found that happier people tended to be more involved citizens — meaning, they voted, volunteered, and participated in community activities more than less happy people — possibly because they were optimistic and trusted others more. Yet another study in Latin America found that happier people tended to vote more and that happiness was likely the cause — not the effect — of voting. 

Of course, saying your well-being helps others isn’t meant to pressure you to be happy all the time, which is pretty much impossible. It’s good to remember that all emotions can be useful under certain circumstances, including negative ones, such as when fear keeps us from taking unnecessary risks, or sadness helps signal to others that we need comfort. Nor does it mean that we should simply put on a happy face when we don’t feel happy. Accepting our negative emotions is actually useful for our well-being while repressing them generally isn’t.

But these findings do suggest that taking care of our well-being need not be entirely a selfish pursuit. We can all try to do so as individuals — by practicing keys to more sustained well-being, like gratitude, mindfulness, awe, and compassion — and try to build societies that promote wellness. And you can pretty much bet that by nurturing our well-being, we will be helping those around us, contributing to a better world for all.

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. 

Tags: Self Care, Mental Health, relationships, wellness

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Written By

Jill Suttie, Psy.D.

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