Kindness v coronavirus: how altruistic acts are helping people cope
In the face of the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have taken opportunities to help others and found it rewarding for themselves, too. We discover why, for them, it’s a good time to get kind
On the day lockdown was announced in Wales, Beverley Jones, 56, was busy putting notes through doors in her village of Raglan. “If in this time of isolation you need anything from the shop, we will be popping up each morning,” she wrote. “Don’t hesitate to call at any point.” Since then, she’s been shopping for nine households each week.
“I have certain days for different people and every morning I go and get the papers,” she says. “The weeks fly by.”
Doing this has helped Jones cope during the pandemic. “I have anxiety,” she says. “So helping others gives me a purpose, routine, and a little bit of control over my diary. It also gives me great joy to know I’m helping others in their time of need.”
When Positive News put a call out on social media for people who have helped others during the pandemic, hundreds of responses were received. During lockdown, many of you have signed up as volunteers, helped vulnerable people in your community, or carried out small acts of kindness.
So, do crises bring out the best in us? We asked people what altruistic acts they’ve been doing and why, and spoke to psychologists, to find out how giving boosts our mood and helps us to stay resilient.
Many people said they wanted to play their part in the response to the coronavirus crisis. For example, Joe Tannorella was frustrated when he felt there was nothing he could do to support others.
An activity that carries meaning for us will boost our mood
“It was really bugging me that I couldn’t do anything to help,” he says. So Tannorella set up CheersNHS, a way for people to say thank you to NHS workers by buying them a takeaway. “It’s so nice to see the impact we’re having,” he says. “It really does restore my faith in humanity. I’ve never been so happy to be busy.”
Rebecca Bradley, a HR consultant, has been shopping for her friend Iris, who is in her 90’s. She has also been researching the impact helping others has on our mood. Bradley asked 80 people to fill in a mood tracker every day for the past 50 days and has been analysing the results.
“It’s been ever so interesting,” says Bradley. “[I can see that] helping others has had an impact on how I and others feel.”
Psychologists have found a number of reasons for this. One is that helping others feels meaningful. Times of crisis make us re-evaluate what is important to us, Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow, says.
“Sometimes when life’s going on as normal and we’re on that treadmill, we don’t stop to reflect,” she says. “But now, more of us are pausing to think about what matters to us and what life we want to lead. An activity that carries meaning for us will boost our mood.”
A virtuous circle
Claire Goodwin-Fee is a psychotherapist who has set up a bank of more than 3,000 volunteers to give frontline workers emotional support during the pandemic. She says some people, like herself, may be motivated by gratitude.
“My dad was sick in intensive care and I was really grateful for what [healthcare workers] had done for my family,” she says. “So on a human level it gives me a chance to reciprocate.”
Engaging in acts of kindness may also improve our mood during the pandemic because it gives us something to focus on, and a sense of control.
“At the moment, so much has been taken away from us but [kindness] is one thing we do have control over and is a positive distraction,” Goodwin-Fee says.
Social distancing measures have also taken away our usual way of connecting with others and volunteering can partially restore these.
We feel that kindness comes back somehow and that it swells around us
“It connects us to other people and to something that’s bigger than us, so you feel part of a bigger movement,” Goodwin-Fee says. “It makes us feel like we’ve got a legacy and that we’ve contributed. We feel that kindness comes back somehow and that it swells around us”.
Kind acts even release feel-good hormones and physically change our brains. “For example, gratitude creates different pathways in your brain and changes the way your brain looks and functions,” Goodwin-Fee says.
None of this is to say that kind acts do not often take hard work, time, energy and commitment. People who are kind also deserve gratitude and recognition themselves, of course. But Beverley wants her neighbours to know they are not a burden and that they have helped her enormously during the pandemic shutdown.
“[People] keep saying they feel bad asking me for help,” she says. “But what they don’t realise is that they’re doing me a favour, too.”
Image: Volunteers at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital unload meals for NHS workers, prepared by Annabel’s private members club, in London. Peter Nicholls/Reuters