In Work Life

We hear a lot about two research-backed recommendations—giving to ourselves and giving to others—that can reportedly lift our minds out of mental fogs, heal our relationships, and bring life to our workplaces. On the surface, these miracle recommendations might appear to be a contradiction. But are these concepts, giving to ourselves and giving to others, at odds with one another?

Self care is important.

On the one hand, we have the self-care movement, with academics, industry, and thought-leaders alike pushing us to turn inward and pause, to do something nice for ourselves on a daily basis. We are encouraged to draw baths with soothing sodium chloride crystals, perhaps with a hint of lavender or eucalyptus. We’re told to get massages, to meditate, dance to music, play an instrument, and even leave ourselves uplifting messages to discover later.

The message is clear: However you do it, prioritize yourself over other people and obligations, including the expectations that others may have of you. In frequent flyer terms, you need to put your oxygen mask on first. And there is research to support a self-care approach —  particularly among patients with chronic conditions.

Generosity helps us get ahead at work, and feels good, too.

On the other hand, there’s the generosity movement which teaches us to give to others. The classic example has us buying coffee for the person behind us in line at the café, and we’re told to incorporate the “five-minute favor” into our everyday routines. This mantra is reinforced by the personal benefits that we receive when we help others. Research shows us that although there’s not much difference between the utility we receive from spending $5 compared to $20, there is a substantial difference between spending either of those amounts on yourself versus others – the bang for your buck is much higher when you spend it on others.

Can you do both?

Are these two in conflict? Is the recommendation to prioritize ourselves incompatible with a recommendation to give to others? Certainly it’s the case that bad things happen at the two extremes — both giving too much to ourselves and giving too much to others can have negative repercussions. In a reality where we have limited personal resources (time, attention, energy, love), we have to decide how to allocate our resources. Giving too much to ourselves tends to backfire when others pick up on our selfishness, particularly when we are taking at the expense of others. But giving too much to others can have negative consequences as well.

Giving too much leads to burnout, which we see with caretakers and workaholics (though nowadays “workaholics” could refer to the majority of the working population), and is well-known among psychotherapists as “compassion fatigue.” Focusing solely on others to the detriment of ourselves depletes our resources, leaving only exhaustion. To beat this sort of generosity burnout, psychologist Adam Grant notes that “being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person. It’s about making sure that the benefits of helping others outweigh the costs to you.”

The secret is all about balance.

We need to find the right balance between giving to ourselves and giving to others, where we’re not doing too much of either. In one study, researchers found that both helping others (by supporting them emotionally, for example) and being helped by others (by being emotionally supported, for example) was associated with better mental health. Helping others was an even stronger predictor than being helped, but this trend reversed when the burden of giving was too high and was actually associated with poorer health.

The key is to make sure to make time for giving to others and giving to ourselves. We don’t have to choose, and in fact we shouldn’t! One example of achieving balance in the heathcare field is Pattern Health’s care circle for patients and caregivers to support each other, with a list of “pleasant activities” (not so different from self-care activities) that patients can choose from and do for themselves. This combination of allowing patients to give to themselves, but also to others, creates a balance that favors both short- and long-term health and well-being.

So, the next time you take a moment to stop and smell the flowers, pick one for a friend too.


How do you strike a balance between giving to yourself and giving to others? Let me know on twitter @alineholzwarth

About the Author

Give and Take guest blogger Aline Holzwarth an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. She is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, an evidence-based connected care platform that leverages behavioral science to help patients stick to their care plans. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier, at home and abroad.


  1. Kennedy, A., Rogers, A., & Bower, P. (2007). Support for self care for patients with chronic disease. Bmj, 335(7627), 968-970.
  2. Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2014). Happy money: The science of happier spending. Simon and Schuster.
  3. Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. Journal of clinical psychology, 58(11), 1433-1441.
  4. Schwartz, C., Meisenhelder, J. B., Ma, Y., & Reed, G. (2003). Altruistic Social Interest Behaviors Are Associated With Better Mental Health. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(5), 778– 785.
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