Why Helping Others Drives Success, Even in a Pandemic

6 Oct 2020

Why Helping Others Drives Success, Even in a Pandemic

Estimated read time: 5 minutes, 21 seconds

Psychologists know that helping others is one of the best ways to help ourselves and boost our own emotional strength. Science has proven that those who exercise empathy toward others are better at weathering the storm during challenging times, like during the current coronavirus pandemic. Lending a hand to others can heal us. 

What is the scientific and psychological basis for this concept? Why is helping other people the best way to stay emotionally strong?

Why It Works

In March of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a document titled “Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.” In this text, the United Nations (UN) offered advice for staying mentally strong in the face of uncertainty:  “Protect yourself and be supportive to others. Assisting others in their time of need can benefit both the person receiving support and the helper.”

The approach of the WHO experts is in line with the most recent findings in behavioral science. Psychologists have long investigated this idea and are convinced that one of the most efficient tools for battling anxiety is generosity — expressed, for instance, in the form of kind gestures and support toward others.

Highly respected scientific studies have proven that when we help and collaborate with others, our brain releases chemicals like dopamine in the same areas that are activated when we experience other pleasures, like good food or even sex. In other words, it produces an intense and immediate sense of gratification that lowers stress levels, also reducing feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety.

These brain mechanisms have led scientists to a surprising conclusion: to achieve our own happiness, we must make others happy. When applied correctly, these findings provide us with a key for improving our mental health and emotional strength: help others to help ourselves.

Coronavirus and Resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our planet in painful and unpredictable ways. Millions of people around the world are suffering from anxiety, trauma, and depression. Many of them must also face these issues in isolation from others, making matters worse. Domestic violence incidents have surged, and certain groups — such as young people, older adults, and those with disabilities — are more susceptible to the emotional effects of the pandemic. 

For countless people, the global health crisis has presented an enormous physical and mental challenge that can only be overcome with great amounts of resilience. This word refers to our ability to resist and transcend adversity: how we adapt and how we get back up and move forward after a fall. 

Resilience doesn’t just mean confronting difficult situations. Additionally, and most importantly, it means transforming difficult times into experiences of growth, learning, and self-improvement. Some research takes this idea even further, as in a study by researchers from Carleton College and the University of Rochester published in the scientific journal Psychological Science. The authors demonstrate that having a purpose in life — such as helping others and maintaining positive relationships — is one of the best ways to achieve resilience and other benefits, such as a longer life, lower stress, and even better finances. Another study led by Michigan’s Hope Center proves that altruistic people have a better sense of their vital purpose and consider their lives to be more full of meaning. 

Being resilient, then, is one way to face the challenges posed by this pandemic. Personal relationships and social support are critical to this goal. In order to battle the psychological effects of coronavirus, it’s important that we can count on that source of support, since relationships are a source of wellness and contribute to alleviating stress and traumatic situations.

But being resilient isn’t just an attitude or frame of mind, it requires real action. We must put our emotional intelligence to work, be more mindful, and apply our self-awareness to find ways to overcome difficult situations. The sum of these efforts will help us develop resilience, the most powerful tool to confront the distress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.

This quality is far from exclusive to our personal lives. It has a clear social dimension: resilient individuals contribute to a resilient society. These communities will be better prepared to face challenges like the coronavirus, develop safety plans, communicate efficiently, and establish improved systems of collaboration between private and public spheres. All in all, they will be stronger.

Something as personal and seemingly trivial as helping others can make us more capable of confronting adversity and better equipped to make society more resilient, too. 

How to Start Helping Others

You don’t need to take on a heroic amount of responsibility. Sometimes, small gestures can be more than enough. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Call people on the phone. Getting people talking about their fears and worries can help them feel better, while we stimulate our capacity to think through problems and propose solutions.
  • Offer specific help.  Lending a hand to someone who can’t leave their house to get to the grocery store or needs a ride to a doctor’s appointment can be enormously helpful.
  • Work with kids. Don’t forget the impact the pandemic is having on children and teenagers. It’s important to help them express their fears and talk about their feelings in a positive way. This is an invaluable way to support them and our community.
Grandmother using her cell phone to video chat with family
Teacher sitting on the floor of a bright colored playpen teaching children how to read
  • Acknowledge the importance of caregivers. Publicly recognizing those who care for our health or safety can have a very positive impact. It’s a way to help these individuals and support society.
  • Be supportive of those who are sick, and their families. People who have COVID-19 must be isolated, both in their homes and in hospitals. The pain and loneliness that this isolation causes can often be relieved with a simple phone call, text message, or video call. 
  • Console those who have suffered losses. One clear way to help others during this time of collective trauma is to spend time with and console those who have lost their loved ones.
  • Donate. There is a wealth of organizations and other entities that are raising funds to battle the virus and help those who are most in need. Donating to these groups is a useful and practical way to help.

At this moment, everyone’s cooperation is vital. Each person can do their part to help others feel a little better. These simple actions can strengthen our mental health and make us happier. 

Sources: World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Psychological Science, Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood, Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley University. Can Helping Others Help You Find Meaning in Life?, The New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope: “The Science of Helping Out”

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