On kindness

Mental Health


Social Change

Written by

William Smith-Stubbs

June 2020

On kindness.

As the country was plunging into the start of COVID-19 lockdown, I suggested to my fiancee that we put up a flyer in our apartment lobby.

She thought it was a great idea and did up a quick design: a cute illustration of a shopping cart, our phone numbers, and an offer to make trips to the store for anyone in the building who was immune compromised, elderly, or just too anxious to go.

We pinned it to the cork noticeboard in the lobby. We received a neighbour's text about it the very next day.

We had wanted to put up our flyer for two reasons.

First: we’re relatively young and healthy. That makes us lucky. We should help others if we can.

Second: because I myself felt afraid.

Like many, I’d been watching the growth of COVID-19 for some months. And, like many, I felt a painful twist in my stomach as the numbers surged and countries scrambled to react — or didn’t.

It felt as though a horror film was unfolding around me and I had no agency to do anything about it — or any power against an invisible and insidious enemy of microbes.

This felt different to other disasters, as did the reaction: seeing people panic-buy toilet paper is something I can't wait to tell my future children about.

It isn't just the scale of COVID-19, it is the format. Physical disasters like floods and cyclones are concrete. We understand them. We can see them. Something like a pandemic is harder to wrap our brains around. We struggle to put something so invisible into neat psychological boxes of 'Stuff to worry about'. This insecurity and intangibility taps into the primordial part of our brain that fears the dark and the unknown.

I noticed how glued to my phone I was. And how my morning ritual became a bleary eyed review of the nights deaths and data models. I became irritable and foggy-brained, my mind locked in a state of both constant vigil and vegetable-like exhaustion.

This is what anxiety does to you. This is what uncertainty and fear does to you.

And the best remedy for your own fear, I’ve learned, is to help someone else feel a little less afraid.

And the best remedy for your own fear, I’ve learned, is to help someone else feel a little less afraid.

Your brain on kindness

In fact, the science behind it is pretty compelling:

Kindness is, quite literally, good for our own health and wellbeing. And, with reward mechanisms like this, the argument that kindness is hard wired into us is pretty compelling.

Just this month the results of a study on kindness were released in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, validating previous studies that demonstrated volunteering produced health benefits: including volunteers substantially less likelihood of mortality and physical limitations, and a higher sense of wellbeing.

And yet, there are days where kindness feels hard to find. The pandemic-induced panic buying itself feels like an example of society doing away with the notion of collective good in favour of individual benefit.

It feels like there are less smiles between strangers, fewer ‘good mornings’, and a general reluctance to even look each other in the eye.

But again, this is what fear and anxiety does to you. Just as altruism affects our brain chemistry significantly, so too does fear and anxiety. And when those feelings seem all pervasive, from threats systemic and microscopic, everything looks like a threat. The world seems darker.

Look for the helpers

I’ve been trying to be kinder, and to exercise kindness wherever I can. Even the small things.

Out on a run the other week, I looked up to see an elder man sitting on his balcony. We both paused a moment as our eyes met. He seemed reluctant to break that anxious, silent moot. I waved. He smiled. And we chatted briefly about nothing in particular — and I think, both felt all the better for it.

I’ve been trying to look for kindness, too. And there are examples abound — like life rafts in a pretty gloomy sea. Two streets away, someone has set up a community library and seedling station. Another neighbour had arranged a selection of canned foods on their block’s fence above a sign that read: TAKE WHAT YOU NEED.

Kind muscles have been flexing during this crisis - from community help groups in Sydney and across the country, to clinician-built supports for front-line workers, and the stuffed toys ensconced in front yards for neighbourhood children to spot from afar. Rainbows have appeared in windows and chalked on driveways in support of nurses and doctors. Isolation balcony concerts have erupted from those of us with musical talent.

This year we've all plunged into a world of generalised anxiety - or, for many of us watching the climate crisis unfold, and the effects of social inequalities, this is only anxiety exacerbated.

This fear and unease will not vanish overnight. Even a vaccine won't dispel our social fears immediately.

We have rightfully been told to social distance, to cover our faces, and be wary of infection. You can practically chart the growing sense of distrust and unease alongside this. It is certainly the necessary thing to do - but I suspect it will alter how we interact for a while yet.

If, then, a mask and vaccine are the response for the pandemic of COVID, I think an exercise of kindness is fair response to fear.

The iconic children's television presenter, Mr Rogers, once said: 

“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Personally, this has always rung true.

The trick, of course, is that someone has to start. 

It doesn't have to be big, or grand. It could just start as a smile, a wave, or an offer of help.

(And, if you're at a loss of where to start, consider signing up for our anti-loneliness campaign for elders, #OLDMATE.)

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