When I was younger, I spent a lot of my time at my grandparent's house. Ganga and Papaw (our family’s name for the two elders) only lived a few minutes away and when we would visit, I could hardly be torn away from them. My parents tell me that no matter how short a time it had been since I had last stayed the night, I would always make a fuss about staying again.
This was partly because of the endless stream of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the allure of an upstairs (my home never had a second level). What was special about that home is that it was full of stories. My Ganga would read us an endless amount of books. She is credited with teaching the entire family to read. We — myself included — grew up following her finger across the page and parroting every word after she said it.
I was reminded of one such story the other day as I was walking the aisles of a Goodwill. Among the trinkets, old appliances, and people with masks on, I had found my way to the used books. I had just moved into my first apartment and wanted something to put on the coffee table. And there it was — The Little Red Hen. I read back through it, thumbing the pages and seeing the value that it had instilled in me. This 12-page book taught me the importance of helping others as well as recognizing that my own time and effort were not without value. And, I found that psychology supported it.
The Little Red Hen: A Brief Synopsis
The story is incredibly simple. A little red hen comes across some wheat seeds and decides to plant them. She lives in a barnyard with her little chicks as well as a cat, a pig, and a duck.
When the hen goes to sow the seeds, she asks if any of the other animals might help her. They all reply with an astounding: “Not I”!
So she does it herself. Some time goes by and she has grown a mighty healthy crop to harvest. She asks again: “Who will help me cut the wheat?” The other animals, being lazy or involved with their own pursuits say that they will not help her. So she does it herself.
This pattern happens again and again. She asks the pig, the cat, and the duck if they will help with the grinding of the flour, the making of the dough, and the baking of the bread. All of the animals could have helped with any one of these tasks, but they all say no each time. So she does all the work herself.
At the end of the story, she has taken the bread out of the oven and she asks once more: “Well, who will help me eat this warm, fresh bread?” The cat, the pig, and the duck all exclaim that they will help! And the little red hen has this to say:
“No, you won’t, … You wouldn't help me plant the seeds, cut the wheat, go to the miller, make the dough, or bake the bread. Now my three chicks and I will eat this bread ourselves!”
And they ate the bread!
Helping Where You Can
One of the obvious takeaways from this short story is to help others where you can. No one has to be superman when it comes to pitching in to help. Helping others in areas where you have some skill or just have the time can go a long way.
For a while, psychology has told us that altruism seems to be wired into our brains. Humans help each other, often without explicit benefit. But, did you know that there might be a benefit after all? It turns out that pro-social behavior — that is, helping others out — actually predicts health and longevity.
“A research team from the University of British Columbia gave a group of older participants with high blood pressure money to spend. On three consecutive weeks they were each given $40. Half the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the rest were asked to spend it on someone else — buy a gift for a friend, donate to a charity or otherwise benefit others with the money.”
The group found that after a few weeks, the participants who had spent money on others had decreased blood pressure. They also found that the drop in blood pressure was comparable to that associated with high-frequency exercise or starting a healthier diet.
If that is not enough, helping others seems to increase your life span. And, it may even act as a cushion against those really stressful moments in your life. One study in the American Journal of Public Health followed 846 people in Detroit, Michigan. Researchers interviewed them and asked about things such as recent stressful events and how often they help others and they monitored the lives and deaths of the people for 5 years.
The team found that there was an interesting interaction between helping behavior and stressful events.
“Specifically, stress did not predict mortality risk among individuals who provided help to others in the past year…, but stress did predict mortality among those who did not provide help to others.” (pg. 1)
What’s more, helping others might make you happier! A paper published in the journal Motivation and Emotion had some participants play a game. Half of the players only played the game whereas the rest of them were told that if they got all of the answers correct, a small donation would be made to charity. Researchers Frank Martela and Richard M. Ryan report that:
“As compared to the control condition, [the donation group] experienced more positive affect, meaningfulness and marginally more vitality.” (pg. 1)
What is so interesting about this particular study is that it shows that prosocial behaviors help the helper even if they never even meet the person they are helping. This is just a taste of the research. It seems that helping others is a cool thing to do, and a healthy one!
The little red hen was really just looking out for the other barnyard animals’ wellbeing.
Say it with Me: My Time Is Valuable!
The little red hen was not just a selfish little bird. She gave the other barnyard animals plenty of opportunities to help her when she really needed it. Each and every time, the cat, the pig, and the duck turned her down.
“Not I,” they said when she would ask for some assistance.
Valuing your time and effort is in a way valuing yourself; it is an exercise in the upkeep of your self-worth. I am not talking about being full of yourself or being a narcissist. I am talking about recognizing that you are the type of thing that needs food, water, sunlight, and the love and value of others. You owe yourself like you owe others.
There are a lot of concepts at play in this area, so let's do some defining. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-compassion are all related but different in important ways.
Self-worth is most simply the personal value of the self. The American Psychological Association defines the term as “an individual’s evaluation of himself or herself as a valuable, capable human being deserving of respect and consideration.”
Self-worth makes self-esteem possible. Psychologist Kristin D. Neff tells us that self-esteem is “…an evaluation of our worthiness as individuals, a judgment that we are good, valuable people” (pg. 2). I get it. This sounds just like self-worth. This is how I understand it.
Self-worth is a check box and self-esteem is a sliding scale. Self-worth is more of a binary. You either think that you are valuable or not in a subjective sense. Self-esteem is then how all your experiences affect how valuable you personally believe yourself to be. Poor self-esteem is thinking that you are not very valuable. I am not a psychologist, so take that with a grain of salt!
The concept that I find particularly pertinent to the little red hen is self-compassion. Dr. Neff writes that:
“Compassion can be extended towards the self when suffering occurs through no fault of one’s own — when the external circumstances of life are simply hard to bear. Self-compassion is equally relevant, however, when suffering stems from our own mistakes, failures or personal inadequacies. According to my definition (Neff, 2003b), self-compassion entails three main components which overlap and mutually interact: Self-kindness versus self-judgment, feelings of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification...” (pg. 4)
Having self-compassion is incredibly important when valuing your own time and effort. Knowing that you put some of yourself into tasks and projects means that you should value those things similar to how you value yourself. Where compassion comes into this is when others think that you are valuing yourself and your time/effort too much.
In The Little Red Hen, the cat, the pig, and the duck no doubt thought bad of the chicken for not sharing the bread. But let’s look at the text again. The hen asked for help all along the way. She was in some sort of need at various points and no one reached out to help. In the end, she — and she alone — was justified in enjoying the fruits of her own labor.
Having compassion towards yourself means making peace with those tough decisions like excluding others who did not see the value of your time and effort. You alone might have to work to maintain that value.
An easy application of this lesson is to the life of a freelance artist or writer. You expend hours and hours into your craft. Painstaking time and effort, often with no help, is your life. Then, inevitably, someone will try to get you to work for free. Do not do it. Your time is valuable! What about those low-ball fees? I am not going to tell you not to accept paid work, but really think about how you will feel about payments. And when you accept and refuse work — be compassionate toward yourself for such choices. You are not selfish for it.
Childhood Reading, Adult Living
I am indebted to my Ganga for not just teaching me to read but for helping me learn valuable lessons. The Little Red Hen — such a simple book — taught me that I ought to help others, especially if it does not hurt me to do so. If I have the time or expertise, why not jump in to aid others when I really can. Alternatively, the book tells the reader to value themselves. Do not let others take advantage of your time, effort, and talents.
Social science backs up these claims too. It is seemingly hardwired into our brain and behaviors to help out, and it helps us physiologically. We like to help. Self-worth is also an important part of our lives. It is the gateway to high self-esteem and plays an important role in self-compassion.
So, help others, value yourself, and whenever you can enjoy the outcome of your hard work — please do!
Mind Cafe’s Reset Your Mind: A Free 10-Day Email Course
We’re offering a free course to all of our new subscribers as a thank you for your continued support. When you sign up using this link, we’ll send you tips on how to boost mental clarity and focus every two days.