23+ wellbeing things. No. 11 – Feeling useful feels good

"Friends" spelled out by letters carried by miniature coloured figuresHelp yourself by helping others

Psychologist Michael Steger at the University of Louisville in Kentucky carried out some research a few years ago looking at what sort of activities made people happy.  His research group found that counterintuitively, pleasure-seeking behaviours did not make people feel happier in the longer term whereas carrying out activities people found meaningful did.  The age-old adage that the more of ourselves we give to others, the better we feel turned out to be true.  This is an important thing to realise in a culture where people trying to sell us things try daily to convince us to amass greater wealth, acquire more and better possessions and seek pleasure for ourselves in order to be happy.  We are sociable creatures and so happiness is still to be found from others.

The study was a careful one – researchers modified their questions after the initial survey to reduce the chance that people might be feeling guilty about admitting how happy self-serving behaviours made them and then checked that happiness increased after doing things that the individual felt were good/meaningful for others instead of helping others being something people did more of when they were happy.  They found that people became happier after they did something they considered to be good, suggesting that happiness does in part come from doing good things.

If you are staying in a house with a garden, weeding it will probably make your landlord happy and afford you some extra fresh air.  If not, check if there are any surviving houseplants that might want some much-needed care and attention!

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Small acts of kindness

What you feel to be a good and meaningful act of kindness will vary between individuals.  It doesn’t have to be anything big and it certainly doesn’t have to involve spending any money!  Chat to friends who you haven’t seen in a while, who are back home, at other universities or trying to work from home for perhaps the first time.  Challenge them to an online game or strategically position your phone or webcam to show a physical card or board game so you can play together.  You could even call your self-isolating parents so they can stop worrying about you for a while.  They will likely be as frustrated as you are by now, either working from home while staring out over a garden that they are starting to realise desperately needs attention or missing their usual trips out and about.

Volunteering amid the lockdown

One thing you could get involved with is the Royal Voluntary Service’s Response initiative.  They are calling for anyone with transport (including a bicycle) to grab pharmacy supplies and deliver them to vulnerable people who are self-isolating and for anyone else to sign up to just give isolated people a call.  Seriously prolonged isolation can have a seriously deleterious effect on those who are not taking care to keep connected and active in their homes, and the housebound elderly in particular are vulnerable after many months of being alone in their homes to becoming sad, anxious and depressed.  Talking to anyone can really help interrupt the isolation and give them the gift of human contact and this often matters a lot.  You only need sign up for what you feel you can manage – there are no ongoing commitments – but it could really make a difference to someone in need.  If you have a bike, delivering vital supplies and medicines to the vulnerable and elderly is also a great excuse to be out and about a lot more than you might otherwise be able.

Help researchers prioritise the response in just seconds a day

If that doesn’t sound right for you, you can help researchers plot the spread of coronavirus by telling them how you are feeling each day through the unattractively named C-19 Covid Symptom Tracker app.  These researchers want daily reports from as many people as they can get a hold of, in sickness or in health, in order to better predict the spread of the viral outbreak.  It takes seconds each day and might help prioritise NHS and social care resources to where they will next be most needed.



Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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