In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which we rely on others. This year, we’ve been forced to find new ways to stay connected, whether that’s signing up for virtual volunteering, organizing Zoom happy hours, or using resources like Nextdoor’s Help Map to obtain essential supplies.
How are these new ways of connecting impacting our well-being during the pandemic? According to a new research paper published in The Gerontologist, all the help that we’re giving and receiving may be serving to brighten our days and keep our relationships strong.
As shelter-in-place orders were issued in March, a team of researchers began asking participants to complete surveys each night for a week. In total, over 1,000 participants in the United States and Canada responded in the spring and summer. In the surveys, participants were asked if they had helped anyone that day—either as part of an organized volunteer activity or by providing help more informally (for example, by offering emotional support to a friend or bringing a neighbor groceries). In addition, participants also reported on their positive and negative emotions, indicated whether they had received support from anyone that day, and rated how they felt their relationships were going.
The researchers found that participants who helped others more often—whether through formal volunteering or providing more informal types of help—reported higher positive emotions, lower negative emotions, and more satisfaction with their relationships. In addition to these differences between people, the researchers also observed people’s well-being fluctuate over time: On days when participants helped others, they felt greater positive emotions and were happier with their relationships, compared to days when they didn’t help anyone else.
Additionally, providing emotional support (that is, providing a listening ear rather than trying to fix someone’s problem) had a unique benefit: On days when participants offered this kind of support, they reported lower negative emotions.
During the study, older participants (ages 60 and up) were the most likely to participate in formal volunteering activities, and they were the most likely to receive emotional support from others. Older participants also reported the highest levels of well-being, in terms of positive and negative emotions and satisfaction with their relationships. Volunteering and staying socially connected—albeit at a distance—may play a role in helping older adults stay well during the pandemic.
In fact, receiving help seemed to be beneficial for everyone, not just older people: On days when participants received support from others, they reported higher positive emotions and more happiness with their relationships.
While this might seem intuitive, it actually differs from previous research, which has found that receiving help from others can sometimes backfire. For example, receiving support we didn’t ask for can be an unpleasant experience, since it can make us feel like our competence is being called into question. Research also suggests that feeling incompetent or powerless as a result of receiving support is linked to negative consequences, such as having more symptoms of depression.
Why didn’t receiving support have adverse consequences in the present study? Nancy Sin, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study, explains that one reason may have to do with the nature of the pandemic. Since all of us are going through a huge, collective stressor, reaching out for help is, in a sense, normalized.
Additionally, people may be more likely to receive the kind of helpful, effective support that they want right now. Participants in the study were especially likely to receive emotional support, and, when we’re facing an uncontrollable, unpredictable event—like COVID-19 is—being able to vent is sometimes more effective than having someone jump in to fix whatever’s wrong. It also helps that a lot of the support happening right now is reciprocal: In a conversation with a friend, we might find ourselves taking the role of both support provider and support recipient.
Sin’s advice for people who are feeling lonely or disconnected right now? Seek out opportunities to connect with others, whether through formal volunteer organizations (many of which are offering virtual or socially distanced opportunities to help) or by simply reaching out to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
Another way to help out is to get others connected to the digital resources they need to set up Zoom calls or do virtual volunteering. While more and more older adults are connected to the internet, not all are (and socioeconomic inequalities can exacerbate this issue). Helping to bridge this digital gap will have a meaningful impact on people’s sense of connectedness right now.
Sin also suggests that the efforts we’re making now to cultivate our social networks can have long-reaching consequences. The volunteer networks, community groups, and mutual aid organizations we’ve built up while social distancing are resources that we can carry forward, even after the pandemic. She explains, “What I hope is that, by people becoming more active in helping other people, in maybe becoming more involved in their communities, that this will build resources that people can still rely on in the future even after the pandemic is over.”