‘Self-Care’ Isn’t the Fix for Late-Pandemic Malaise

What we need is to take care of others.

Jamel Dobbins, 31, preps and h​ands out free food at Hillside​ Elementary School, in Montclair, New Jersey.
Ed Kashi / VII / Redux

About the author: Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. He is the author of The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

If years could be assigned a dominant feeling (1929: despair; 2008: hope), 2021’s might be exhaustion. As the coronavirus pandemic rumbles through its 20th month, many of us feel like we are running a race we didn’t sign up for, and it’s getting longer every mile we run.

With this slog has come a renewed focus on mental health. During the pandemic, universities have poured money into psychological resources. Corporations have hired chief health officers and invested in wellness services. In 2020, the mindfulness app Headspace saw a 500 percent increase in corporate-subscription requests. Alongside these efforts, a worldwide conversation has grown around “self-care:” anything pursued for the sake of one’s own wellness, including practicing goat yoga, bingeing Ted Lasso, and old-fashioned napping. Self-care has been popular for decades, but during the pandemic it has gained new cachet. Google searches for the term more than doubled from March to April 2020. Countless organizations, including mine, implemented “COVID days”—time off meant for employees to center their own needs.

But self-care alone won’t fulfill people’s psychological needs as we rebound from the pandemic. After many months in relative isolation, we must reclaim connection and meaning. That comes not just from caring for ourselves but also from caring for one another.

Self-care is vital, but its efficacy is specific: It is especially good at softening intense stress and anxiety, for instance among nurses and therapists. Profound distress saturated people’s lives in the spring of 2020, and self-care might have protected against it. However, that distress was surprisingly short-lived: As a task force to which I belong reported, acute mental-health problems peaked early in the pandemic and then quickly subsided.

That doesn’t mean people are doing well. For many, the pandemic’s long tail has replaced intense distress with a duller struggle: languishing, or a loss of meaning amid the Groundhog Day that is pandemic living. Languishing has many sources, but right now I suspect isolation is its driving force. When people reflect on what matters to them most in life, social connections perennially top their list. Even as we emerge from social-distancing practices, it’s easy to miss those connections. People are still adapting to reentry and rebuilding atrophied social muscles. And though self-care soothes, it can be too individualistic to help with loneliness. “Me time” is great, truly, but human flourishing is typically out there with everyone else.

Languishing might subside on its own as socializing and travel become safe again. But another approach—one that has been shown in years of research to bolster people’s sense of self—is to show up for others. In one of many studies like it, people were randomly assigned to spend money on either themselves or someone else and then were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “My life has a clear sense of purpose.” Those who spent their money on others reported feeling greater meaning, self-worth, and connection. The effects in these studies were small; buying someone coffee probably won’t be your road-to-Damascus moment. But over time, the effects of many small actions can accrue.

This is even truer during trying times. Despite headlines that blare about looting and other crimes, disasters usually bring out the best in people intensifying charitable donations, volunteering, and cooperation. Kindness has continued through the pandemic, and its benefits have too. In one recent study, hundreds of people were randomly assigned to buy personal protective equipment for themselves or as a gift for a stranger. Spending on others again boosted people’s sense of meaning and connection.

The punch line is simple: Giving boosts meaning in good times, and might be a salve against languishing in tough ones. Here’s the problem: Many people don’t seem to get this. Individuals wrongly predict that spending time, money, and energy on themselves will make them more fulfilled than spending those resources on others. When they act on these illusions, ironically they can deepen languishing and loneliness. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior can intensify when people most need human connection. For instance, individuals who feel lonely or depressed tend to turn inward, focusing less on others, which leaves them even more disconnected over time.

Some people might bristle at the suggestion that they need to devote more time to others. So many of us—parents of young children, children of immunocompromised parents, teachers, health-care workers—have been worn to a nub by helping. Other-care has caused our burnout; how could it possibly be a cure?

The surprising answer is that the very same act of helping can deplete or fulfill us, depending on how we think about it. Imagine helping someone move to a new apartment. To you, this could be an expression of appreciation to a close friend or an irritating obligation you were guilted into. These inner judgments can determine, in part, how doing this favor will affect you.

Researchers have identified psychological ingredients that make helping beneficial to helpers, including autonomy and empathy. In studies run by my own lab and others, researchers checked in with participants at the end of each day, asking whether they had helped someone else that day, how they experienced their act of kindness, and how they were feeling. People reported being more fulfilled on days they helped others, but only when they felt connected to why they were doing what they were doing, and to the person they were helping.

For these reasons, I think we need a complement to self-care days: “other-care” days, earmarked to zero in on positive effects we can have on someone else. Schools and companies can clear time for people not to soothe themselves but to be helpers instead. Among corporations, organized kindness was popular early in the pandemic, for instance when Anheuser-Busch brewed hand sanitizer and Gap pivoted to manufacturing clothing for health-care workers.

Other-care days would build on this spirit, but in different ways. They would shift from grand collective gestures to personal habits of helping, and give individuals leeway to help whomever and however they like, turning kindness into an act of self-expression. This could be integrated with the kinds of care many of us do already, such as parenting. On other-care days, instead of trudging between video meetings and preschool tantrums, a parent could take her kids to volunteer or visit an elderly neighbor. By making space for intention and compassion, other-care days could transform our everyday helping and recuperate its meaning.

Ultimately, the line between self-care and other-care is blurrier than we might realize. People are psychologically intertwined, such that helping others is a kindness to ourselves and watching over ourselves supports others. This idea was embedded in early conversations about self-care. Following its more mundane roots in medicine—when self-care more or less meant heeding doctors’ orders—activists took this idea in a revolutionary direction. In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party launched Survival Programs, mutual-aid efforts designed to encourage preventive medicine, nutrition, and exercise in response to the lack of high-quality health-care access many Black Americans face.

Activists such as Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins broadened this approach to include practices such as mindfulness and yoga, more along the lines of what we now understand as self-care. But their version was still firmly grounded in community. As they saw it, self-care among Black people—especially Black women—was a radical act, denying the oppression that would reduce them. It was also a way to continue pushing against that oppression and toward justice. “Anyone who is interested in making change in the world,” Davis once said, also “has to learn to take care of herself.”

As with so many revolutionary ideas, the narrative around self-care has now been wrapped in marketing; the industry has soared past $10 billion a year in the United States alone. The millions of people who Googled self-care as the pandemic began likely didn’t find information on its community-based roots. They found instead an atomized, hyperpersonal world of tips, products, and services—calming, sometimes expensive tools for being alone in nicer ways—that can help sometimes, and that might strand us at other times.

By integrating other-care into our plans, we can go back to self-care’s broader, more connected origins and rebuild meaning at a time when so many of us desperately need it.