Older boy helping younger girl

How Being Kind Makes Us Happier

Apr 9, 2020

Jenna Camareno

As a Christian therapist, I’m obsessed with wellbeing. But I prefer a different word for it: shalom. Isaiah 11 paints a breath-taking image of shalom in action. This utopic world is complete with wolves and lambs chilling together in the same meadow, God’s people having a big family reunion after being scattered to every corner of the globe, and the knowledge of God filling up the earth like the waters cover the sea.

The truth is, I’m more captivated by the positive distinctives of mental health such as joy and shalom than I am with eliminating pain. Why? Because the absence of pain does not make for the good life. We think it does, but we’re wrong. Suffering is actually part and parcel of what it means to live abundantly on this broken planet. So when I do therapeutic work with people in their darkest days, I focus on aiding their discovery of the meaning in life. Love. People. Calling. Even self-sacrifice.

So many of the Bible’s statements about what makes for wellbeing seem backwards or counterintuitive. (Beattitudes, anyone?) In Acts 20:35, Paul quotes Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Really, Jesus? Because I’m pretty positive I get a kick out of opening sparkly packages on Christmas morning. But yes, it turns out that Jesus has his divine, all-knowing head on straight. Being a giver is really where it’s at.

I decided to dive into psychological sources and learn what research has to say about altruism, generosity, and kindness for the life of the giver. Here are 5 things I’ve been learning about the blessedness of being kind-hearted.

1. Showing kindness makes us happier.

In his article “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to be Good”, Stephen G. Post discusses a wealth of data proving that a generous mindset towards other people actually floods our own lives with more wellbeing.

Letting our hearts expand and grow by caring for other people can’t guarantee happiness or health. Yet there is a natural law in place that loving others blesses the lover. As Post proves, the research supports this principle that the Bible has been teaching all along.

2. A whole bouquet of factors account for altruism’s effects on our health and mood.

The mechanisms for kindness’s boomerang effect may include a stronger sense of personal significance and competence, better relationships, greater sense of meaning in life, and a mental displacement of our own griefs and problems with regard for the good of another (Post, 2005, from research by Midlarsky, 1991). 

3. Forgiveness may provide heart health benefits for the forgiver.

We see this by paying attention to the reverse: what happens when we cling to bitterness and unforgiveness. Our heart rate surges, our blood pressure skyrockets, and we are inundated with stress hormones. Opening our hands and releasing our grudges can free our bodies from the physical out-workings of anger and hatred.

4. We find ourselves through helping others.

From my day-to-day conversations, I’ve been catching winds of an idea that’s gaining traction and popularity: that if we attend to the needs of others, especially in a sacrificial way, we’re failing to self actualize. My needs should always come first. The world will be a better place if I learn how to be me.

Post recognizes, “There is no either-or dualism between quickening that innate capacity for benevolence and the fuller actualization of a happier and healthier self” (p. 67, 2005). In other words, we don’t have to choose between self and other. At the end of the day, by doing good to others, we find ourselves. We discover lives of significance and meaning. As Christians, we discover our calling as we love mankind in the way we were created to. 

5. If our routine of service becomes overwhelming, it may be detrimental to our health.

Serving others can prove overwhelming us for a number of reasons. Sometimes the needs in front of us are so great that we feel daunted by the task. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a season of caring for an ailing loved one, and the demands on our time, energy, and patience are weighty.

If our giving is overwhelming, it’s wise to take a step back and re-evaluate. Living a life of balance and rest enables us to love well long-term, rather than burning out short-term. This is not to say there won’t be seasons of heightened ministry towards others in which we are not getting all of our own needs met. I think we just need to prayerfully evaluate these seasons and not enter into them blindly, or permanently.

At other times, we may find we have codependent tendencies. Codependency masquerades as love. But if you strip away the selfless exterior, it’s actually an attempt to escape facing our own “stuff” by distracting ourselves with somebody else’s. It’s less love and more fear and avoidance. Unfortunately, Christians slip into codependent ways easily, in the name of love. True love for our neighbor doesn’t require us to deny or ignore our own feelings and needs as a way of life. Authentic love flows best out of an emotionally-whole heart, not one that is secretly drowning in insecurity and denial. Codependence is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it’s selfishness dressed up as love.

Raoul

Altruism training could be a revolutionary intervention for emotionally-disturbed youth. Just such a thing happened in real life in the case of Raoul, a Puerto Rican kid who was in and out of the foster care system like a revolving door (Twemlow, Sacco, & Sacco, 2017). Raoul carried with him an impressive list of diagnostic labels like a ton of bricks, from hyperactive behavior to aggression and defiance to hallucinations and delusions. His behavior showed him to be a loner. Some of the adults in his life suspected autism. Strap these labels on just about anybody and throw them in the ocean, and they’ll sink straight to the bottom. It’s unlikely Raoul could see any bright spots in himself.

As part of Raoul’s mental health services from a local community clinic, he was assigned a therapeutic mentor. As his mentor sought to build a relationship, they discovered that Raoul enjoyed taking photos. Handling the camera made the youngster feel special. Although at first he was critical of his work, immediately deleting photos he judged as bad, as time went on, he became more accepting of his own artistry. 

The mentor then discovered that Raoul was drawn to animals. The pair toured the local animal shelter together, and Raoul was soon recruited as a volunteer. Holding the cats was his favorite. Raoul and these felines had a thing or two in common – both were awaiting adoption from a state foster home.

Raoul learned how to combine his interests and shoot photos of the cats for the shelter’s website. He empathized with the cats’ wariness. So he learned to comfort the felines and draw them out of their cages with tenderness in order to capture terrific photos. From his careful shots, potential adopters could see how cute each cat was. The adoptions at the shelter increased. 

Raoul’s behaviors also began to transform. His grades took an upward trajectory, and his actions at school became more pro-social. He joined other extracurricular activities such as martial arts. Raoul’s heart had been reconstructed through his opportunity to show kindness and empathy to scared, orphaned cats. 

“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” 

Proverbs 11:25

Through examples like Raoul, we get front row seats to God’s principles being lived out in moving ways.

Applying it to Your Life

Our primary purpose for showing generosity obviously shouldn’t be to make us happier. The fact is, the more we seek out happiness in and of itself, the emptier our lives become. We were created for a higher purpose than getting kicks and running from pain. As bearers of the image of God, we feel the lack of meaning in our lives when happiness is all we’re going after.

On the other hand, joy, peace, and health are frequently a byproduct of serving others. It appears that love is boomerang-shaped; who knew?

As we get flooded with the joy of bringing good to our brother, neighbor, kid’s teacher, missionary on sabbatical, Trader Joe’s bagger, and milkman, we discover other health benefits like lower blood pressure and decreased stress level.

Like gazing at your city out an airplane window, we see our own troubles from a wider perspective. We view with more accuracy which things in life are big, and which are little. We remember what matters, and what is fairly forgettable.

In Post’s article, he interacts with several fancy research studies that evidence that altruism gives us big, huge benefits. One of these studies concluded, “If giving, rather than receiving, promotes longevity, then interventions that are currently designed to help people feel supported may need to be redesigned so that emphasis is on what people do to help others” (p. 70). Word.

Take a moment here with me and just imagine. Imagine the impact on our mental health treatment programs, our schools, and especially our families, if we altered our trajectory towards teaching people how to show kindness.

I’m not a parent yet, but if one day I’m granted that honor, I know one of my priorities will be teaching my kids big-heartedness. No doubt about it. As a Christian, I believe that not only loving our kids well, but teaching them to love others well, is key to shaping their little hearts and reproducing good, grace-filled humans. 

Please comment with ways that you have seen blessing from showing care to people. And by all means, give your girl some love if you have any stellar parenting tips along these lines!

The Gorgeous Life is about all the facets of female life in Christ Jesus. You’ll find tips to cultivate glowing health, be more present and alive in your relationships, develop inner and outer beauty, and laser-focus your sense of purpose in the world.

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