More than three quarters of people think society has become more selfish

Release Date: 21 May 2012

Source: The Mental Health Foundation

Country: United Kingdom

New report from the Mental Health Foundation highlights how helping others is good for people’s mental health and wellbeing. 

  • 76% of people feel that others in society are more selfish and materialistic than they were ten years ago
  • 67% think that people are less likely to go out of their way to be kind to a stranger compared to ten years ago
  • Charity highlights the evidence-base behind how helping others improves our own mental wellbeing and calls for people to carry out more acts of kindness

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (21 - 27 May), UK charity the Mental Health Foundation, has today published its Doing Good? report. The report highlights the impact that helping others has on people’s mental health and wellbeing, following a public attitude survey which showed that people believe society has become more selfish.

The UK faces challenging and unstable times with volatile economic markets and job uncertainty. Many people say they feel too stressed and busy to worry about helping others or say they will focus on doing good deeds when they have more ‘spare time’ but the evidence shows that helping others is beneficial for people’s mental health and wellbeing. It can help us:

  • reduce stress
  • improve emotional wellbeing 
  • benefit physical health
  • achieve a sense of belonging and reduce isolation
  • live longer
  • get rid of negative feelings.

The Mental Health Foundation commissioned YouGov to carry out a survey* in order to understand people’s attitudes. The charity asked participants if they felt people were doing enough to help others compared to ten years ago and how often they carried out acts of kindness for others. 67% of participants think that people are less likely to go out of their way to be kind to a stranger compared to ten years ago and 76% feel that people are more selfish and materialistic than they were ten years ago. However, according to the poll, 80% of people agreed that being kind to others can have a positive effect on people’s health and 87% said that they feel good when they carry out an act of kindness for someone.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation says:

“Although it’s worrying that people feel society has become more selfish, our research also showed that the majority of people agree that being kind to others can have a positive effect on their own health and that they feel good when they carry out an act of kindness for someone. Many people engage in volunteering, mentoring and small acts of kindness, such as letting someone in front of them in a queue, holding the door open for a stranger and giving up their seat on public transport. With this in mind, for Mental Health Awareness Week we are calling for the public to carry out more acts of kindness to improve their own mental wellbeing and that of the UK. They don’t need to be big things, cost a lot of money or be time consuming. To help the nation get started, we have produced a handy pocket guide filled with useful ideas and tips for making helping others part of daily life.”

Dr Dan Robotham, the lead author of the report says:

“Churchill once said, we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give”. Scientific evidence shows that helping others has benefits for our mental and physical health. It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness, can bring a sense of purpose and reduce isolation, can help get rid of negative feelings such as anger, aggression or hostility, and may even help us live longer.”

Report recommendations

In order to help the nation do more good deeds, the Mental Health Foundation has made the following recommendations:

  • Schools, nurseries and playgroups should encourage acts of kindness, peer support and a culture of volunteering from childhood. 
  • Schools, universities and colleges should encourage children and young people to volunteer in local communities 
  • Employers should promote mentally healthy workplaces through encouraging and supporting altruistic activities amongst the workforce, such as colleague mentoring programmes. 
  • Employers should recognise the role of volunteering as a way to develop skills. Particular attention should be paid to supporting the transition to retirement, creating programmes that support older employees to redefine their identities as contributing members of their communities after they have left work.
  • Commissioners of services aiming to support vulnerable groups should invest in volunteering and peer support services, for socially isolated groups such as older people, people with mental health problems and people with learning disabilities. Supporting people to contribute may result in reciprocal community support networks being developed. 
  • Government should prioritise investment in third sector organisations designed to promote volunteering and Time Banks. These organisations need to be supported to extend these opportunities to isolated people. Training for voluntary sector staff should be provided to help them engage with potential volunteers who may require additional support.

Download The pocket guide to helping others and the Doing Good? report and executive summary