A surprising prescription for your broken heart

A surprising prescription for your broken heart

My client, Jane, said “This election has turned me into a pathetic soft sack of emotion. I’m so saddened that I can barely function.” The next day I asked if she felt any better. “Not really. I left work early to get a pedicure. It didn’t help.”

It doesn’t take a sociologist to determine that Jane is not alone. Following the US presidential election, much of the world is heartbroken and anxious. If you’re in this tribe of the walking wounded, or feel down for other reasons, I have a suggestion.

Skip the pedicure.

Instead, spend the pedicure time or money to support whatever societal issue concerns you. If you fear a rollback of hard-fought civil rights, for example, write a tweet encouraging tolerance, order a banner for your storefront saying “We proudly serve refugees, immigrants and all minorities,” update the language in your company’s recruitment page encouraging minorities to apply, or simply donate the costs of a pedicure to the American Civil Liberties Union.

I’m not trying to guilt you into activism (although I might in a future post!). Instead, I’m recommending a better remedy for your dampened disposition than a pedicure, fancy meal, shopping trip and other “treat yourself” cures promoted by popular culture.

Research overwhelmingly finds that doing what academics call “prosocial behavior,” defined as helping others or a societal cause, will bring you more happiness than treating yourself to a pleasurable experience.

A study published in September, for example, compared people doing prosocial and self-focused behaviors over several weeks. The prosocial group experienced increases in joy. The self-focused group did not. Similarly, the prosocial group experienced a reduction in sadness, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions. The self-focused group did not. The researchers concluded “People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves. Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.”

Your prosocial acts, however, don’t need to take weeks and can be modest. Another research study distributed $5 to students at the University of British Columbia to spend that day. Researchers instructed some students to spend the money on themselves and others to spend it on someone else or a charitable cause. Those who spent the money on themselves weren’t happier that evening. Those who spent it on others were. Even if you donate only $5, it will likely still cheer you more than a pedicure.

Of course, if you can’t bear to give up the pedicure, by all means, get one. No research findings will get me to forego my manicures. However, from your comfortable pedicure perch, why not write a card to the person massaging your feet? Thank them for helping to make this country great through their hard work and exceptional service.

You get the idea. There are a constellation of ways to counter bigotry, help unemployed veterans, bring a smile to terminally ill children or be prosocial on the cause you prefer. Any of them will likely boost your mental wellbeing.

Maybe the triumph of heartbreak is what Jane thought was pathetic: It turns us into soft sacks of emotion. It allows the world’s suffering to bend, and sometimes dent, us. Maybe our heartbreak is trying to reshape us into more tender beings who respond more powerfully to the world’s suffering. Maybe we are meant to learn a simple edict: If you feel down, do good.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.

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