How kindness, compassion and even awe can boost your mental health

The awe you feel at a beautiful sunset or a piece of music can help lift your mood and strengthen your mental health, Jennifer Stellar says (Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Anyone who has comforted a friend in a time of need or volunteered for a worthy cause knows the experience can leave you feeling good about yourself.

Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, specializes in studying “prosocial” emotions such as compassion, gratitude and awe, and her research suggests these feelings do in fact contribute to one’s own well-being.

She says compassion, along with gratitude and awe, has psychological benefits because it allows you to look outside your personal needs to focus on someone or something else.

“I think the idea is that the self, the ego, can be noisy – it can be negative,” she says. “It can be self-deprecating, so sometimes we need a little break.”

The act of helping others might be a particularly welcome distraction from the strains of the pandemic and physical distancing, Stellar says – not to mention a way of helping one’s community in a time of need.

Stellar recently spoke with U of T News about her research and shared a few tips on how to feel better by looking beyond yourself.

How can helping others improve one’s own mental health and well-being?

There are multiple pathways toward well-being and meaning and even physical health. I don't want to denigrate self-care and thinking about working on your self-esteem or self-actualization. Those are really important. But the one that I think has been understudied, and that I devote my time towards, is looking outside the self.

The self, the ego, can be noisy – it can be negative. It can be self-deprecating, so sometimes we need a little break.

Emotions like gratitude, sympathy, compassion and awe, they focus us temporarily outside the self. They quiet that noisy ego and they can provide opportunities to be efficacious by helping somebody, which can make us feel good.

They can make our bonds with other people deeper, or even initiate new bonds with people that we didn't have before. And, of course, there’s a lot of work to suggest that being social is really important for health and well-being.

If we’re thinking about something like awe, it can get us out into new experiences that can be really rewarding for personal growth – like going out in nature and hiking to the top of a mountain that maybe you didn’t think you could hike or experiencing a new type of music or visual art that you haven’t seen before.

There are many pathways to being happy. But sometimes people forget it might be useful in certain cases to think a little bit less about the self and think more about other people and society more broadly.

That can give us meaning and joy in ways that we might not expect because we typically think of joy as, ‘What do I need to be happy? What can I do for myself?’ The answer might be that you can do something for someone else.

What do you mean by awe, exactly?

A lot of times, I’ll be lazy and use a synonym like wonder, amazement, astonishment, but I think another good way of describing it is the feeling you have when you encounter something so extraordinary that it’s almost hard to understand.

It might be a sunset that’s just incredibly beautiful. In Toronto, for example, we’re sometimes blessed with amazing sunsets. But it can also be a piece of music that gives you goosebumps and makes your hair stand on end.

Often people report feeling quite small and part of something grander and more important than themselves.

Awe has many of these qualities that you see with compassion, where people feel pulled from themselves, but this time they’re focusing on a very specific person and a person in need.

It isn’t that often studied compared to gratitude and compassion, but it’s been shown to promote prosocial behaviour and orientations like humility and curiosity. Any opportunities to go out in nature and experience art and music – it doesn’t necessarily orient us toward a particular person per se, but does have the same effect of taking us away and outside of ourselves a little bit. It opens us up to the world more broadly and it has been shown to promote things like interest in donating to charity, especially in things that affect all of humanity like protecting the environment and climate change, or social justice movements like Black Lives Matter – those kinds of collective movements.

What kinds of altruistic activities most promote our own well-being?

Everybody needs to find what works for them. For some people, it might be working at a charity. For others, it might be helping a friend who needs your help moving, or has just been dumped by their partner and needs your support.

People are pretty good at recognizing what makes them feel these emotions.

You could also help teach kids English. During COVID it’s kind of hard, but [after the pandemic] you can travel abroad and do service or work in your local shelter or even at an animal shelter.

People should find what works for them and they shouldn’t discount helping friends.

Often, we are shown opportunities to help family members, friends and partners. Of course, it’s really important to help strangers, but a lot of emotions like gratitude and compassion occur within close relationships.

How long is the afterglow of these feelings?

It’s really hard to measure. We know that when people feel compassion and help others they feel more similar to them, which is really important. We also know that when they’re feeling awe, they tend to feel small – and not in a bad way. It’s like they see themselves as a small piece of something larger. One could say that’s a healthier view of the self, that’s not quite so inflated or central.

Mostly these feelings are self-reported. They are associated with a strong sense of connection with other people. I think that is a key part of it. It’s not just about losing your focus on yourself, but also about focusing and feeling a connection with somebody else.

We don’t really know how long these effects last. It might depend on the intensity of the experience.

In the case of awe, it could be a small experience like a sunset or a transformative experience where people are forever changed.

How important is it to experience these prosocial emotions at a time of physical distancing?

It's really hard to experience compassion without some social element to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a human – you can feel sympathy or compassion toward an animal – but there’s usually another being involved.

Gratitude can be really similar, although you can have a generalized appreciation for what you have that’s not tied to anything specific and could be more religious in nature. These kinds of emotions are pretty social. That's part of what makes them prosocial emotions – they’re experienced more frequently in the context of other people.

I typically think of these emotions as binding emotions. They bind us to other people, our groups, our cultures, our societies. Physical distancing of course makes it a little more challenging.

But as you can imagine there are lots of ways to connect people in a distanced format online. The challenge always during COVID has been to find ways to physically distance but maintain that social connection.

Tips for feeling compassion, gratitude and awe

So, how do you begin to boost your intake of these feel-good emotions? Here are a few places to start:

  • If you’re searching for opportunities to exercise compassion, U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships has volunteer programs for students that can count toward their co-curricular record. The centre connects students with local organizations through community action groups or remote projects.
  • Another good place to look is Volunteer Toronto. You can use their catalogue of current openings to search for virtual volunteering opportunities and/or opportunities related to the COVID-19 response. And Volunteer MBC, serving Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, connects volunteers to more than 200 non-profits in the Peel area, and they list virtual positions.
  • For animal lovers, or those who just like participating in research, check out Zooniverse, which bills itself as the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research. That includes everything from helping to save burrowing owls by classifying photos to listening to the calls of tree frogs.
  • If practising gratitude is what you’re after, Stellar recommends starting a gratitude journal, a diary of things for which you are grateful. Countless free templates are just a Google search away, and you can find some on Pinterest.
  • Lastly, to experience awe, Stellar likes to go for walks, especially now that the weather is getting better. “I love going to see the lake during sunset, but you can also watch shows like Planet Earth,” she said. Music is another way to get your awe fix. Stellar says one of her favourite awe-inspiring pieces of music is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.




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