Has COVID finally taught us to be kind? Sarah Ebner describes how the pandemic is reshaping the way we show we care.
Not long after the onset of Covid-19, author Clare Mackintosh carried out an act of kindness for her community in a small town in North Wales. She established a “secret library”, a box filled with books for locals to borrow.
“Once the libraries closed, people came here, and two days after lockdown, almost all the books were gone,” Mackintosh says.
A headmaster added a children’s section, and the small library became an important local landmark. What started from a simple act of thinking about others grew into something bigger.
“The kindness in my small, rural community over the last few months has been extraordinary,” Mackintosh explains. “The Secret Library became a depository for vegetable seeds, food bank contributions, fabric for masks and hospital scrubs. A local crafter made simple sewing kits and left them in the library to help alleviate boredom, along with a stack of homemade bookmarks and a cheery note saying ‘help yourself’.
“It brings me great joy to tidy the library each morning and spot which titles have changed; to know that someone has visited and chosen a book, perhaps left two or three for someone else to discover.”
Small – and large – acts of kindness like this have been replicated around the world over the last few months; volunteer NHS responder sign-ups numbered over 750,000 people (more than three times the original target) in just four days.
“I think there’s a movement happening,” says Jaclyn Lindsey, the co-founder of Kindness.org, which commissions research into altruism and promotes kindness initiatives. “Covid-19 has given an opportunity for people to demonstrate new ways of being kind.”
These have included anything from the setting up of community groups to pick up shopping for the vulnerable, or making food for the elderly.
I write The Telegraph’s Good News newsletter and have been inundated with uplifting stories – from an eight-year-old who is mowing his elderly neighbours’ lawns for free, to a group of Syrian refugees who have been cooking food for workers at their local hospital. What fascinates me is how so many people say that being kind has helped them as much as those they have helped.
That does not surprise Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Research Director for Kindlab (the research arm of kindness.org) and a Research Affiliate at the School of Anthropology at Oxford University. He says that being kind can be “mutually beneficial”, and carried out research which concluded that it actually improved wellbeing.
“All the evidence suggests that it makes you happy,” Dr Curry explains, as it “can make you feel that you’re part of a support network, or less isolated. You might feel you’re part of something larger than yourself, or it might help you make friends or earn the admiration of peers. Other people might think you’re a nice person and then choose to interact with you.”
One act of kindness can even inspire another – the idea of “paying it forward”.
Dr Curry says he thinks kindness is rooted in evolution, and that we have learnt that doing favours for others can create a “virtuous” circle whereby they are done for us at a later date.
Professor Michael McCullough, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of San Diego, agrees. His new book The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code, asks just why people choose to help others. Why donate a kidney to a stranger, he posits, or give charity to people you will never meet?
Being kind is not solely a moral choice, Professor McCullough says, but down to reason.
“We don’t notice a lot of suffering and turn away from it because it would cost us to respond, or we would feel shame if we ignored it,” he says.
However, history has taught us that being kind, which he defines as occurring when we “treat others more like friends and family than strangers” makes rational sense.
Professor McCullough points at many examples, from the realization that laws to help the poor might also help society (as they lead to less crime and illness) to the more enlightened view that every individual has “a fundamental dignity that they can’t be alienated from.
“Kindness creates meaning and helps self-understanding,” he explains. “Reasoning is the secret ingredient.”
Jaclyn Lindsey gave up her job to launch Kindness.org, because she believed that kindness could “overcome the challenges in the world.” Her most recent project has been a new programme for schools, Learnkind, and she has plans to roll out a project for workplace kindness too.
“It doesn’t take much to be kind,” she says. “We’re not looking for acts of heroism, but I do think people have a deep desire to be better and do better, despite the limitations we face. We’re prone to talk about the bad, but I’m a firm believer that the good is happening as much if not more. Kindness is everywhere.”
The Kindness of Strangers: How a selfish ape invented a new moral code by Michael McCullough is published by One World
Be Kind: A Year of Kindness, One Week at a Time (Everyday Inspiration) by Melissa Burmester and Jaclyn Lindsey is published by Rockpoint
Sarah Ebner writes the Good News newsletter, which contains positive news and uplifting stories of community. Sign up here.
The top five most beneficial kind acts to be done while in quarantine or social distancing:
1. Wash your hands.
2. Take care of a family member who is sick.
3. Cover your mouth when you cough.
4. Make a donation to people hit especially hard by the economic shutdown.
5. Cook a nutritious and delicious meal to share with your family.
The top five least costly kind acts:
1. Say thank you to someone who made your meal possible.
2. Be on time for video calls
3. Cover your mouth when you cough.
4. Write a list of things you love about someone.
5. Add someone’s birthday to your calendar.
(Research via Kindness.org)
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