The Science of Kindness in Quarantine

The Science of Kindness in Quarantine

The first week I moved to London, I went to a Tesco Express for some tomatoes. I looked a woman in the eye. I smiled as I passed someone coming out the door. They hurriedly moved on. I made chit-chat with the cashier. I even tried cracking a joke. They didn’t even flinch. What’s happening? I thought. Is it me?

Within 6 months, I acted like everyone else – no hellos, no jokes, looking busy to feel important, exhausted. Staring at the tube adverts, phone, anything. And not, under any circumstances, making eye contact with a stranger. 

But then my mother came to visit – and she, as I had originally been, spoke to anyone, tossing compliments at people on the Northern Line, smiling at people in Sainsburys, chatting away, chipper as ever. Once, she loudly complimented a woman’s haircut on the train. My daughter moved here, she said. I’m an honorary Londoner now

I was mortified.

And then, I welled up with shame.

Why am I so embarrassed? Of what? Of my mother? She loves it here! 

And then I realised – the woman, with the haircut, she was smiling. It made her day. 

She’s just being kind, I thought.

She was just being kind. 

Who cares about kindness? The Science of Kindness and Why it Matters

Who cares about kindness? We do. Here’s why:

1. People who are kind are happier.
Acts of kindness have been linked to happiness chemicals in your brain, including oxytocin (the “love hormone”), dopamine (“helper’s high”), and serotonin (a “feel good” mood regulator). This can create a warm feeling (literally), reduce your blood pressure, and help you feel calm. Kindness also produces endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller! An act of kindness can boost your self-esteem, optimism, and energy.

2. People who are kind are less stressed.
Kindness, of course, cannot cure anything, but it can seriously reduce general anxiety. The University of British Columbia studied a group of highly anxious individuals, both before and after performing six (minimum) acts of kindness a week. After one month, there was a significant increase in positive mood, relationship satisfaction, and a decrease in social avoidance in socially anxious individuals. It is also estimated that people who do acts of kindness can have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) in their bodies.

3. People who are kind live longer.
Believe it or not, kindness apparently has a stronger effect than exercising 4+ times a week (an at-home workout we wouldn’t mind trying!). Unpicking the science behind it, kindness releases oxytocin in the body, which reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system – two major culprits of the ageing process.

Kindness in the Time of Corona

COVID-19 has been hard on everybody. You can’t be kind to others until you’re kind to yourself – and let’s face it, sitting hunched over a desk in your new home office eight hours a day with less sleep, less vitamin D, and less contact with your loved ones, isn’t a great way to live. So, how has COVID-19 impacted overall happiness, stress levels, and mental health rates in the UK?

In the year ending March 2020:

    • Average happiness deteriorated to the lowest levels since 2014
    • Anxiety increased to the highest levels on record (increase by 6.3 per cent – with 3.05 out of 10 people reporting feeling anxious, up from 2.87 last year)
    • In real terms, this means 49.6% of Brits people aged 16+ reported “high” anxiety (rating 6 to 10). This equates to over 25 million people.

The Office of National Statistics, which collects data on personal wellbeing and mental health, has released reports on the impact of COVID-19 on the overall population. It goes without saying that, since March 2020, the UK has experienced sharp spikes in increased anxiety, decrease in life satisfaction, “low” happiness, and heightened concerns about personal well-being, work, and finance.

But it’s worth asking – how were people in the UK feeling before lockdown hit?


Happiness in Pre-Pandemic UK 

Interestingly, COVID-19 may not be the culprit of all our mental health woes. Internationally, the UK is 15th place for overall wellbeing and happiness, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report – not bad! However, there is ongoing speculation that the combined dismay following Brexit – and not COVID-19 alone – contributed to people’s poor mental state and wellbeing.

ONS statistics show that the national mood dipped well below its predicted rate in late 2019 – this could be due to increasing economic concerns, for example, or increased media coverage of failing businesses.


How to be kind in a Pandemic

Here’s what’s so beautiful about kindness – it’s teachable, and it’s contagious. You’ve heard of Darwinism, right? Usually survival of the fittest has to do with competition and outlasting other species. Some argue that it’s most advantageous to look out only for yourself. However, even Darwin argued that sympathy and care for others is instinctual, like survival itself. 

“It’s kind of like weight training, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”
Dr. Ritchie Davidson, University of Wisconsin

In fact, kindness is only useful over a sustained period of time. It doesn’t last forever. This is why you should make it a personal practice to be kind. Today is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, and 2020’s theme is Shaping Peace Together. So, what does a peaceful, compassionate, kind world look like? 

Here’s a start. We’ve brainstormed a few pandemic-friendly, socially-distanced, contact-free acts of kindness to get you started:

  • Compliment a stranger
  • Drop off your neighbour’s weekly shopping for them
  • Leave a note in your neighbour’s door to check on them, especially if they’re vulnerable
  • Do a favour without asking for anything in return
  • Prepare an unexpected meal or snack for your flatmates
  • Ask your colleagues about something besides work
  • We cannot stress this enough – wear a mask.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around” 
– Leo Buscaglia