Self-care won't save us from exhaustion. This other strategy might

Getting involved in helping others, whether by volunteering at a community soup kitchen or through a mutual aid group, is an effective way to improve your own well-being, research has shown.

(CNN)Whether it's caring for kids, parents, coworkers or our community, many people feel utterly tapped out because of all the extra caretaking thrust upon us as the pandemic has upended daily life over these past two years.

Putting someone else's needs first, yet again, can feel like the worst way to soothe burnout.
But what's called "other-care" actually holds a key to well-being, explained Jamil Zaki, Stanford University associate professor of psychology and author of "The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World."
    While helpful, self-care alone is not the only ingredient for happiness and peace of mind, said "The War for Kindness" author Jamil Zaki.
    How could caring for others possibly help cure the fatigue we feel? Zaki shared the counterintuitive, science-based truth of the matter.
      This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
        CNN: Can caring for others really be more fulfilling and sustaining than caring for ourselves?
        Jamil Zaki: What's interesting about this question is how backward our intuition tends to be on this subject. One of the most optimistic, uplifting and reliable findings from social psychology, in the last 10 or 15 years, is that helping others provides a fast track to improving our own well-being.
          Spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Supporting someone through their stress reduces your own. Spending time helping other people makes you feel like you have more time for yourself.
          Here's a less uplifting but equally reliable finding: People don't know those truths.
          Jamil Zaki is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University.
          If you ask people what will make them happy, they say that they would prefer to spend money on themselves. When people feel low on time or stressed, they are less inclined to help others, even though helping others would actually alleviate these problems.
          Because of these perceptions, we often employ poor strategies to pursue our own well-being rather than listening to the evidence.
          CNN: Are you suggesting that self-care and alone time don't benefit us?
          Zaki: Not at all. But by themselves, they don't seem to be the font of happiness, well-being and peace that people sometimes believe them to be.
          When we are lonely or stressed, our minds can convince us to circle the wagons and only think about ourselves. This can turn out to be a totally counterproductive strategy.
          The lonelier someone was on a given year, the more they focused on themselves that year, according to a 10-year longitudinal study. But the more someone focused on themselves in a given year, the lonelier they became the subsequent year.
          This is a massive problem in our culture due to the hyper-individualistic narrative we are taught. Pressure to achieve and serve our own goals, and then eventually prove to ourselves that we're happy by purchasing elite consumer goods, drives people directly into this spiral.
          If you have the misconception that the best way to pursue happiness is to buy a bunch of things, it's not really your fault. Unfortunately, what you've been told is often wrong.
          CNN: How can we reframe our thinking about other-care so that our efforts benefit rather than deplete us?
          Zaki: The benefits actually come not from the act of helping itself but from how you interpret it.
          If we focus on the burden rather than on the difference we're making, or why we care enough about someone to help them in the first place, the effort tends to deplete us.
          If, instead, we focus on the benefit of our care or on how we are nurturing our connection to the person we're helping, that very same act can enliven, soothe and revitalize us.
          Cellist Jodi Beder performs a daily concert on her front porch in Mount Rainier, Maryland, on March 30, 2020. Beder started the performances to help her neighbors cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.