From giving up your seat to a stranger who needs to sit down to bringing food to a friend or sitting with an ill parent, we’ve all had our moments of caring. And it’s likely you know someone who seems to live and breathe empathy and caring— you may even be that someone.
But what motivates any one of us to care about others? And of all the ways there are to care for people, why do we choose one way over another?
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Science tells us that as a species, we evolved into more caring human beings—if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have survived.
Alone, we were no match for the forces of nature. Raising and protecting babies who took years to mature required a collective effort. Our growing ability to cooperate and recognize when others needed help allowed us to work together at the business of surviving and, ultimately, to thriving. Taking care of each other is what got us here and it’s an innate part of who we are.
Even now, in the few remaining collaborative societies not based on money, everything is shared with everyone. No one is entitled to more resources than anyone else, and everyone is fed and cared for regardless of their ability to contribute. In these societies, taking care of others is the best way to ensure everyone will thrive.
Today we could choose to avoid a great deal of direct human collaboration and connection. So why do we still care for others? What makes us want to be helpful to someone else, even if there’s nothing obvious in it for us? The answers are varied and wonderful.
Many people credit their parents, especially their mothers, as their inspiration. They were shown and told caring for others was the right thing to do.
As humans, we thrive when we have a strong sense of belonging to a group, and when we feel a connection to something bigger than ourselves. We suffer when we feel we don’t belong or we don’t feel connected. By caring for others we can experience a sense of purpose, fulfill a higher calling, and find our own place to belong.
And while much of the motivation for caring people report is altruistic—it’s simply what we are called to do—there are rewards: Caring for others feels good. It’s fulfilling. It improves our quality of life.
Feeling like we don’t belong can lead to depression, anxiety, and withdrawal, so the simple act of paying attention to one another remains a vital act of caring. When we feel heard we feel understood and can then better connect with someone else.
When it comes to how we care, the ways we do it are as individual as we are. Some of us most enjoy giving or receiving gifts. For others, simply spending time with a friend or a loved one is enough to fill their tank. Performing unbidden acts of service says, “I care about you” without uttering a word. We can help lighten another’s load through shared laughter, a helping hand, or an out of the blue kindness.
Taking the time to listen deeply can make a difference in our sped-up world. Remembering important things about each other—their kids’ names, their vacation plans, their favorite shows—and asking about them the next time you talk, goes a long way towards making someone feel known and that they are important to you.
Caring, while often a very personal exchange, can also be exhibited by supporting causes through donations of time or money. Pitching in on a group effort can magnify the effects of your caring efforts and impact people’s lives in effective and even life-changing ways.
And, of course, there’s food! Making your family’s favorite dish, delivering food to a neighbor in good times and tough ones, and leaving small treats on a co-worker’s desk can all help nourish relationships in more ways than one.
It’s how we flourish. And it can be personally validating to be known as a caring person. We feed our own need for meaning and recognition as we help fill the needs of others. There’s really no downside to thoughtful caring—and the benefits are profound.