For the second year in a row, participants' self-reported ratings for where their life falls on a scale of 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life) were strikingly resilient in the face of COVID-19. And researchers suspect the reason to be deceivingly simple: Measured kindness has been on the rise, and being kind increases happiness.
While that first bit might seem surprising, particularly given the recent spike in racist hate crimes and tense political division in this country, collective trauma does seem to have a counterintuitive way of motivating more kind acts at an individual level.
Specifically, the report measures “global benevolence” in terms of three different acts of kindness: donations, volunteering, and helping strangers. And the number of people who reported doing each of the above increased significantly over the past year, leading to an average rise in benevolence across all world regions by almost 25 percent of its pre-pandemic level. In fact, the researchers even go so far as to say that the “COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020 led to a 2021 pandemic of benevolence with equally global spread” in the report.
As for why? It’s the result of a ripple effect: In 2020, the catastrophic nature of the pandemic’s beginnings coupled with stay-at-home orders instilled a deep awareness of how much COVID-19's impact on our lives and sense of mortality would shake us all. “You became conscious of the difficulties of others who were shut in, too, and you were also more likely to be walking around your neighborhood where you’d be inclined to see strangers, and to offer or receive help from them,” says editor of the World Happiness Report John Helliwell, DPhil, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.
Because these acts of kindness are, in a sense, contagious, it tracks that the more folks who engaged in them in 2020, the more kindness proliferated and grew in visibility through 2021, contributing to a separate booster for global happiness. “When you witness more acts of kindness, it raises your overall positive beliefs about society,” says economist Christopher Barrington-Leigh, PhD, a researcher for the report and associate professor at McGill University.
“In times of collective challenge like this one, we tend to adjust our beliefs about other peoples’ character and pro-social nature positively toward the truth.” —Christopher Barrington-Leigh, PhD, economist
That’s important because most people’s beliefs about others are far more pessimistic than the reality. “We’ve been attuned…to assume the worst in people, but in actuality, it's much more common for people to rush out and help others in a crisis, rather than to ignore them,” says Dr. Helliwell. And the pandemic has helped realign our perspectives to that fact: “In times of collective challenge like this one, we tend to adjust our beliefs about other peoples’ character and pro-social nature positively toward the truth,” says Dr. Barrington-Leigh.
Again, these findings aren't meant to underwrite the injustices and inequities still very much swirling, nor do they diminish the well-documented negative impacts of the pandemic on well-being, as evidenced by the rise in rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Rather, they identify a source of hope for how we might emerge from recent traumas more willing to connect kindly with others, and more aware of the real benefits that can arise when we do.
How being kind increases happiness levels, even during collective trauma
Kindness is, at its core, a facilitator of positive connection with others, and it's primarily through this route that being kind increases overall happiness levels. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over and over through decades of research on the science of well-being is how social humans really are,” says Dr. Barrington-Leigh. “And the degree to which we feel connected to others in a kind, constructive way is a strong predictor of our overall life evaluation.”
Being kind increases the happiness of the person who offers the kindness as much as the one who receives it—but both experts emphasize the additional importance of the "witness" effect noted above. That is, anyone who merely sees more kindness happening around them is more likely to believe that they’re supported within their community, which contributes notably to well-being.
To illustrate this, consider the scenario of a dropped wallet, suggests Dr. Barrington-Leigh: What’s the likelihood that if you dropped your wallet in your neighborhood that it’d get returned to you? Chances are, the more kindness you’ve witnessed in your community, the more sure you feel about it getting returned, and the more positive your life outlook, too.
The resulting sense of belonging and support you’d feel in that scenario isn’t to be understated, either. “The evidence about happiness today runs counter to the narrow, economic version of welfare that says it’s all about income for you and your family in zero-sum terms,” says Dr. Helliwell. “Instead, we’re increasingly finding that happiness is based on strong, shared activities with others—shared production, if you will, of good times and good feelings.”
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