Why I’m Giving up Self-Care for Community Care

Taking care of others is the best way to take care of ourselves right now

Photo illustration. Sources: Greg Vore/Getty Images, Maddy_Z/Getty Images

When the coronavirus lockdown began in March, I was inundated with messages about self-care. In emails, Instagram stories, and on Twitter, influencers and marketers were telling us all to try a face mask, a hair mask, to drink a glass of wine, or use this time to learn a new skill. I tried it all. I stayed in my apartment and patted on beauty products. I took long showers and deep conditioned my hair. And I bought a guitar online and tried to learn to play it. The guitar-playing may have helped. The rest, frankly, did nothing. I didn’t feel any happier or safer or less concerned about the meltdown of our world — although for a few days my skin glowed and my hair was extra-glossy.

Gradually, I started to turn away from self-care and toward something I call community care. Last Sunday, I took the money I would have spent on going out to dinner (in a normal world) or another beauty product and purchased flowers from the buckets on display outside my local market in Brooklyn. I bundled the fragrant just-in-season blooms — lilacs, deep magenta tulips, dusty Echinops, and silvery brunia — into small arrangements and left them on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors. Then, I texted them to check their doorsteps for a surprise. My friends shared photos with their now bright smiles on full display; their days changed. Rather than easing away one of my wrinkles, I had given people close to me a wrinkle of hope.

Small acts of kindness for others may have more impact on your happiness than any self-care ritual. Much of the research on happiness and pro-social behavior is small and correlational but this research shows promising connections between acts of kindness and feelings of happiness. Over a decade ago, in a study of Japanese undergraduates, researchers found your sense of happiness could be increased by the simple act of counting the number of acts of kindness you had performed. Additional research in the recent World Happiness Report revealed that many pro-social behaviors, such as spending money on others, feels better than spending money on yourself. For me, spending money on my neighbors helped boost my happiness. I felt the deep joy of creating something I loved — and felt directly how hope and happiness aren’t things you find by searching, they’re something you find by giving.

Later that Sunday night, I took a painting that had been resting against my studio wall between a pile of other canvases and brought it to a friend. He lives alone in a small apartment and has been in between jobs for months. He smiled when I showed up wearing a gray mask, chatted with me (from a socially appropriate six feet away), and carried the huge canvas upstairs and into his house. It cost me nothing to loan him my art and yet for him, the aesthetic change brought a sense of hope, or promise, and the deliciousness of the unexpected.

Gifts of aesthetic beauty are well-known to improve our mood. In an Atlantic article from 2014, Cody Delistraty shares research from Abraham Goldberg, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate, which shows that “The things people were constantly surrounded by — lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets — had the greatest effect on their happiness.” His research shows that humans’ appreciation of beauty stems from its capacity to conjure feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, a sense of wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps most surprisingly, hope.

In the past few weeks, I have seen time and again that the pursuit of beauty and art brings hope. Flowers are a form of art (ask any professional floral arranger) and brought joy. Paintings are established art and brought a much-needed perspective change and the corresponding space to reflect. A small children’s book that I wrote for a friend has now been shared with so many by email that I decided to create a weekly art project of surprise stories delivered to your inbox. Stories are an art form that brings whimsy, surprise, and excitement. Many of us have become economically stressed over the past month, but the good news is that we do not need to spend more money to take care of our community. We simply need to share the beautiful things in our hearts and our world with those around us. Creating something and giving it away is powerful.

So much of the time when we talk about community care, we are talking about donations and activism. These are important. If we have the ability, we should and must send food to front line workers, get tablets in the hands of hospice patients and ensure children can continue their educations. And, yet, we must also take care of our very specific, very small communities of people in whatever ways we are uniquely able to do. I make art. My friend Anat bakes exquisite breads and muffins and gives them to neighbors — one of whom is a Cedars-Sinai doctor who delivers them to other front line workers. The simple act of giving and surprising people may help improve your own well-being, along with theirs. When we each individually have hope and sparks of happiness, our collective sense of hope and happiness grows. When those grow, we lessen the collective feeling of trauma that now permeates our world.

We can create hope. Make something. Give it to a friend. To a neighbor. To someone in need. Repeat. Count up the acts of good you have accomplished, the joy you bring, the connections to your community you have forged. In this time of grief, depression, and fear, you will find more happiness there than in any self-care ritual.

Writer, artist and Chief Science Officer at Hypergiant Industries. Find more about Kristina here: www.kristinalibby.com and www.lohmstudio.com.

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