Post written by guest blogger Ana Martins Ribeiro, Special Programs Coordinator in OITE.
Everyone has experienced the powerful impact of a kindness act either done to them or by them. While growing up, we’ve all heard the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. In fact, the ‘healing power of doing good’ has gained relevance over the years as we recognize that being kind and compassionate not only increases our connection to others, but it leads to physiological changes by stimulating the same neural circuits that are involved in chemical “highs” (dopamine, serotonin and endogenous opioids) and by reducing pain while enhancing the release of oxytocin. As scientists, while we’ve always recognized the value of kindness for what it feels like, incorporating it in our daily lives (like we do with a healthy diet!) requires recognizing its non-abstract nature, making it tangible so we can use it for our own benefit as individuals and in our relationships with others.
As social animals, we are probably hard-wired to be altruistic for the benefit of our species, and kindness has most likely shaped our evolutionary path as a form of altruism that encompasses being generous, considerate and friendly when practicing the disinterested selfless well-being of others. Given that extreme environmental fluctuations often modulate social needs leading to explicit behavioral changes, can we clearly observe an increase in kindness and altruism in our communities as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic? The answer is yes. It seems like, as we are forced to grow apart physically, we instinctively hunger for social connection, which has been translated into an increase in kindness behaviors around the globe. As the virus spread threatening individuals, communities, cities and countries, the world grieved for the loss of thousands and for the powerlessness facing the progression of a pandemic that dramatically changed our lives. While there are reports of people who decided to stock up supplies in desperation, the good news is that many more cases of prosocial, kind and altruistic behavior have been described. Deciding to stay at home and avoid leaving except in extraordinary circumstances, wearing protective gear and following strict rules of physical distancing and hygiene to protect vulnerable others are, in its very nature, acts of kindness. All over the country, communities are creating local databases to support seniors by using technology, hoping to lower their loneliness levels. College students are gathering to work on online forms to help students find housing, funds, meals, or rides home. Musicians are streaming mini-concerts over social media, reaching fans to help them cope with physical distancing. Some are painting gratitude rocks for health professionals to let them know how much they’re work is appreciated. People are connecting more via virtual platforms than they did before and social media has helped find our common humanity by realizing everyone is facing this crisis together and that by doing a small part individually, we are doing lot as a community.
Our own NIH community has shared their kindness acts towards others and recognized how much a random set of encouraging words written by a stranger on a tracking path made their day better. We’ve seen some people volunteering in their communities to assist high risk groups with shopping for groceries or medications. To alleviate feelings of loneliness, especially for those who are far away from home and from their culture, the Visiting Fellows Committee (VFC) is organizing movie parties, trivia nights online and are planning a virtual social networking event. Postbacs are doing virtual paint nights via Twitter and labs are doing virtual lunches and happy hours to make sure that people feel connected.
The OITE is using Twitter (@NIH_OITE) to promote the #oitewellnesschallenge, a space where the NIH community can post a short video or some thoughts on a different topic every week describing something they did to increase their well-being. This week’s challenge is on ‘practicing kindness’ – we would like to know about an act of kindness you did for someone or something someone did for you that made you feel appreciated, valued and seen. Remember, as we go through these difficult times together, we can all behave as first responders equipped with kindness, compassion and empathy to attend to someone in need amid the Coronavirus pandemic.