“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing… If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” – Chinese Proverb

I recently taught a course through the UC Davis Continuing Education program, titled Ancestral Actions for Healthy Aging. During my presentation I discussed four key components to healthy aging, using evolutionary logic to back up my ideas. The four components involve how humans evolved to sleep, eat, be physically active, and socialize. I saved the idea of How Humans Evolved to Socialize for last, for good reason. Our inherent ability to be socially connected and helpful towards others might be the most important component to our well-being and longevity.

Contrary to the divisiveness that we see on the news and in social media, and how many people go about their day concerned for their own self-interest, our species is uniquely wired for kindness and compassion. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin wrote in his 1871 book The Descent of Man: “sympathy is our strongest instinct, sometimes stronger than self-interest, because the most sympathetic members of a tribe would flourish best.” (This was true whether that was a tribe person nurturing a child, or teaching hunting skills to adolescents.) Darwin also observed that “a tribe who were always ready to aid one another and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.” Darwin’s observations help explain how being kind and caring benefits not only our own health, but also the well-being of our communities.

Studies show that those who are less self-centered and go out of their way to be kind and helpful to others can reduce inflammation and stress, lift their mood, lessen loneliness, and improve the quality of their lives as they age. In fact, people who volunteer their time to care for individuals or do good deeds for their community live longer than those who do not.

Furthermore, caring for and being involved with our communities provides a sense of belonging and creates a more stable and supportive society. Yet, if we know that being kind and helpful has a positive impact on our health and relationships, what keeps many people from being more caring towards others and their communities?

American Individualism over the Common Good

The pandemic has certainly played a part in our collective “languishing.”  But long before the pandemic, Americans were far more likely to prioritize their own self-interest and happiness over caring for others. American culture prizes individualism over the common good and having close ties with community. In our dog-eat-dog world, being kind and caring may seem to not serve us well. Indeed, “research demonstrates that givers often sink to the bottom of the success ladder… because they sacrifice their own success in the process of helping others.” In America, individualism, consumerism, and pursuit of the almighty dollar reign supreme. “Sacrificing personal gain for the common good or treating people with different views respectfully” is not a priority in our tech-dependent, materialistic society today.

How Technology Has Disrupted Our Lives

Our hurried, tech-driven lifestyle has undermined our ability to have deeper social connections with people in our communities. Communal places that used to anchor our social lives, such as churches, libraries, community centers, and public parks, are less attended. This is especially true for churches: “an estimated 40 million people—one in eight Americans—stopped going to church in the past 25 years.”  Nonreligious Americans are also less civically engaged. Research shows that nonreligious people are less likely to volunteer, less likely to feel satisfied with their community and social life, and more likely to say they feel lonely.

Consequently, more Americans are spending weekends on their couches, more captivated by their TV screens and electronic devices than engaged with community life. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up before smartphones and the internet. My childhood weekends were generally spent with a flourishing of outdoor activity and socializing. Neighborhood kids played sports and imaginary games or explored open spaces and nearby creeks, while adults did household chores and yard work during the day but often gathered later for a BBQ and card game. My parents hosted many of these neighborhood events.

Graphic illustration of people waking in a crosswalk distracted by their telephones

When residents of communities become disinterested in civic life or their neighbors’ lives and welfare, isolation, alienation and breakdown in social relationships occur. This can lead to an increase in crime rates and a diminished sense of safety and security, even when living in a relatively safe community.

Empathy is cultivated through face-to-face interactions with people we don’t know well, which allows us to share our common humanity. But today we spend most our time staring into our phones, texting or posting short messages, clicking on likes or emojis to represent our feelings, or satisfying our curiosity of the world by talking to Siri or Alexa devices.

Over the past two decades, technology has “optimized” interactions with real people, making us less happy and more anxious and lonely. Smartphones have greatly “reduced our need to casually engage with anyone we don’t know—or even to meaningfully engage with those we do.” We’re all familiar with the scenes of couples sitting across from each other in restaurants, staring down at their phones instead of looking at each other and being engaged in conversation.

Our hand-held devices can also breed personal dissatisfaction with our own status in life. With the click of a social media app, we can get a steady stream of “beautiful homes, perfect bodies, and glamorous lives” that can make us feel inadequate and insecure about our own lives. When lacking self-worth, we’re less likely to connect with others.

Research has shown that up to 40 percent of our happiness depends on our behavior and daily activities—that’s 40 percent that’s within our power. We can set our phones aside and go on a walk with a friend, have a meaningful conversation with someone, or help neighbor in need. When it comes to pursuing activities that can boost our happiness, helping someone else might be the best strategy. Studies show that practicing kindness generates significant increases in happiness. In fact, just observing people who are kind and helpful can elicit feelings of awe.

The Moral Beauty of Others

The most common source of awe is not looking at wonders of nature, or listening to your favorite music, or engaging in a spiritual practice, or even viewing death-defying stunts on Instagram, but witnessing the “moral beauty” of courageous and helpful people. For instance, people using CPR to revive victims of heart attacks, parents raising children with disabilities, first responders who risk their lives to help others, and those who actively stand up to injustices in the world, all inspire awe. When we’re moved by altruistic actions people take on behalf of others, this can inspire us to be more compassionate.

“In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.” – Anne Frank

For most of human history our species has endured the worst of humanity, mostly to serve egocentric, diabolical men in power: tyrannical kings, authoritarian dictators, religious zealots, or the shameless greed of corporate executives. This has included the atrocities of war and genocide, famine, slavery or forced labor, sexual misconduct, and anything else that has resulted in misery and pain for the human species as a whole.

Human suffering is more visible than ever in our world today, mainly because of 24/7 news feeds and social media that streams fear and negativity rather than more humane content, knowing that there’s a bias towards negativity in our world today. However, there’s a saying that the worst of times brings out the best in people. Only through kindness and compassion can we successfully thrive as a species on this planet. Humans are inherently social beings that have evolved to live “collectively and to be in harmony with each other.” Remaining kind and compassionate among our species is our natural behavior and is the most important characteristic to help us thrive as individuals and as a community.