To help people turn COVID-19 “sadness into song,” as his website put it, a music composer gave away $20 downloads in March. This action inspired a musician in Massachusetts who benefitted from a $20 freebie to establish a collaborative music website “to promote peace, understanding, healing and happiness.” This, in turn, nudged a CEO of a technology company to better promote his policy of offering free services to nonprofits operating in areas declared a disaster. The CEO’s actions inspired a Florida art-school owner, whose school is temporarily shuttered, to help newly unemployed customers apply for government assistance. Her actions, in turn, led a manager at an Illinois entertainment company to ask his team to start planning a free post-pandemic event to thank healthcare and other workers who are risking their lives throughout the pandemic. One of those team members, now working from home, became inspired by her manager’s altruism to take out the trash for her older neighbors so they wouldn’t risk infection. One of those older neighbors, an executive at a bank, was so moved by her consideration that he forwent his 2020 salary to help minimize the number of days his team is furloughed. This, in turn, lead one of those furloughed workers to pull her sewing machine out from under the sink and sew hospital masks. In summary, a musician’s free download in California made a healthcare worker in Illinois better equipped to care for COVID-19 patients.
I realize that my story sounds as fictional as the sentimental commercials that present similar narratives of one person’s generosity creating cascading acts kindness in others. In truth, although all the above acts happened, I took liberties with a few of the connections to make my (nevertheless valid) point: Your acts of social purpose (helping others or a societal cause) do a lot more good than is evident. Research has shown this.
One experiment, for example, told workers at a plant in Madrid that they were part of a happiness study. Every day the workers were asked to write down their moods and any acts of generosity they performed. Researchers then arranged for a random half of participants to receive, on average, about one extra act of kindness a week for a month. The contributions received were modest, such as a small bouquet of flowers or assistance creating a purchase order. After a few weeks, those who received the handful of additional acts of kindness were performing almost three times more acts of kindness than the group that didn’t. What’s more, other research has found that we don’t even have to benefit from an act of social purpose to be moved to follow suit. Merely witnessing helpfulness makes us more helpful, a phenomenon psychologists call “moral elevation.” If we haven’t noticed how our behavior changes in accordance to the social-purpose actions of others, that’s probably because it’s not a conscious choice. But make no mistake. Whether we are aware of it or not, any good that any of us do generally creates more good than its direct impact.
We’ve recently become painfully aware that one dolt’s refusal to stay at home can kill people thousands of miles away. But the positive version of our interconnectedness is also true. Any burden any of us lighten for another lifts the entire system at least a smidgen. There is no need to get an online medical degree, to be a billionaire or to leave our house to support the fight against COVID-19. We might feel limited in our ability to contribute, but whatever small gesture we can do is more powerful than we know. Whether our act of social purpose is calling colleagues who are alone in their isolation, redirecting those who are ill-informed to credible sources of information (like the WHO and CDC), donating the processing power of our laptop to the scientists fighting COVID-19, countering xenophobia on social media or simply sheltering in place (yes, this counts as social purpose), let’s keep it up! Our efforts are giving someone lying on a hospital cot struggling to keep on breathing a better chance of it.
Yes, the COVID-19 virus is virulent but, make no mistake, we have a countering force that is more contagious and more mighty: Helping each other.