Many people are stressed about the state of the world, but feel powerless to do anything about it. However, there are things we can all do to make a noticeable difference.
Researchers are discovering that even small acts of kindness have a measurable impact. Volunteerism can change lives, and political activism has changed societies. When people make even a little bit of effort, change is possible.
Small Acts of Kindness
Kindness has become very popular. There is a random acts of kindness day and a week. Many teachers are including kindness in their curriculums, and parents are doing kindness advent calendars with their children. But what’s all the fuss? Do these acts really make a difference?
An increasing focus on the study of kindness in psychology, especially since 2010, has shown that small acts of kindness do have measurable benefits for both givers and receivers.
For example, a workplace study conducted in Spain found that people who were asked to do five kind things for others over four weeks felt increasingly competent while participating in the experiment. They were also less depressed and more satisfied with their work than others in the workplace who didn’t give to others (the control group).
The people in the study who were designated as “receivers” over the four-week study also experienced measurable benefits. They were happier than others in the workplace for up to two months after the experiment ended.
But wait, there’s more. The “receivers” also became “givers.” They paid the kind acts forward by participating in 278% more prosocial behaviors (doing nice things for others) than the control group.
A mere five small acts of kindness over four weeks had a profound impact on this workplace. Imagine the impact kind acts could have on society.
Many people have been changed by altruism. Successful author and psychologist Adam Grant said in an interview that it shaped his character and choice of career. His grandmother was an incredibly selfless person who once drove in deep snow for over two hours to babysit. His diving coach volunteered nine months per year to help him improve his diving.
In themselves, the acts that inspired Grant are relatively small – babysitting grandchildren, coaching a young diver. But they made an indelible mark on Grant. “I think the most meaningful thing that I could do with my life is to try to pay that forward,” he said.
Like kindness, volunteering has benefits for both volunteers and the people they serve.
Most people understand how volunteering helps. Homeless people are fed, kids access sports camps their families may not be able to afford, special needs individuals’ lives are enriched, and more.
However, research is beginning to show very clear and sometimes surprising benefits for the volunteers themselves.
A research review examining past academic studies in volunteerism demonstrated that
volunteering may improve mental health, act as a stress buffer, and help protect against depression. Widows who volunteered suffered less depression. Volunteering can also help people feel empowered and may boost their self-esteem. And volunteers have more friends.
The review also laid out various health benefits for volunteers. Volunteers are less likely to have high blood pressure. There is also a strong connection between volunteering, better health, and longer life.
Volunteering, then, benefits society in multiple ways. First, they assist the organizations they work with. Without volunteers there wouldn’t be soup kitchens, youth sports leagues, or even arts organizations. In the United States of America there are 1.5 million non-profit organizations.
Society also benefits from the health and happiness of volunteers. Happy, healthy people are nicer to be around and are more likely to be kind to others. This also helps to create a better society.
There are also famous volunteers. Florence Nightingale, for example, helped found the Red Cross as a volunteer. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was also a volunteer. Besides helping to found the country, he also started up the colonies’ first all-volunteer fire brigade in Philadelphia.
Watch Season 5 - Episode 7 Find out how volunteers have changed the lives of women and children in Texas by tuning in to RSnake’s conversation with Jill Gonzales of the Women’s Storybook Project.
Political activism is another area in which groups of individuals can make a real difference in the world, both politically and socially.
Women who fought for the right to vote, for example, weren’t paid to do so. The civil rights movement didn’t pay everyone who marched. The last century has seen enormous amounts of change brought about by groups of dedicated activists.
One person alone has limited power, but when ordinary people come together and work towards a common goal, their influence can be mighty. Political leaders are always outnumbered by the populace. If enough people support change, it is inevitable.
Take the thousands of people who supported Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi through non-violent protests and boycotts in India. These actions played a key role in the eventual downfall of British rule in India.
The U.S. civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., among others, also had a profound impact on the political and social climate of the country. America would be a very different place today if thousands hadn’t supported the movement.
And political activism can benefit the activists. This work has been associated with increased vitality, an elevated sense of purpose, and more resilience. Although, it’s important to note it can also cause burnout.
Collective impact involves collaboration between organizations, bringing the leaders of multiple non-profit groups and government organizations together to reach a common goal.
This article by John Kania and Mark Kramer, published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review explained that multiple non-profit organizations in the U.S. often try to solve similar problems in isolation. But like individuals, single organizations are limited in their power. Together they can have a greater impact.
Kania and Kramer shared the example of an initiative that used collective impact to improve education in the Cincinnati area and northern Kentucky. Over 300 leaders from multiple organizations came together to work on one set of objectives.
In just four years the group observed increased high school graduation rates, better math and reading scores in fourth grade students, and more children prepared for kindergarten.
Another example Kania and Kramer gave was the cleanup of the Elizabeth River in Virginia. For this effort, over 100 groups including non-profits, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Navy worked together to detoxify the river. It took time, but after 15 years, there was a reduction in pollution (of 215 million pounds) and 6 times fewer carcinogens. Animals including fish, oysters, and eagles returned to the area as a result.
Overcoming Barriers to Individual Action
Despite the many benefits of actions like kindness, volunteering, or political activism, not many people participate in them. Some research has found that only 7.5% of participants in the U.S. had volunteered the previous day. Key reasons for this could be underestimating the efficacy of these actions and their benefits, and time.
Psychological research has found that people chronically undervalue the impact even a small action can have.
Participants in a study asking people to hand out free hot chocolate to ice skaters on a cold day demonstrated this. The participants distributing the beverages didn’t believe they were doing anything important. But the recipients were much more grateful for the act of generosity than the givers predicted.
There is also a misconception that acts of kindness or volunteering will disadvantage the giver. In this scenario, the giver is depleted while the receiver benefits. It’s a lose-win scenario. As demonstrated in this article, research has shown this is untrue. Givers do reap benefits from their generosity.
Time is also an issue for many people today. Many workplaces require their employees to work long hours. In families with children, one or both parents may work full-time. People feel stretched and unable to give any more.
But these can be overcome through awareness. As more people discover the impact kindness can have, they may be more likely to do something kind for others. Similarly, discovering that volunteering has significant benefits for volunteers could inspire more people to participate.
It's more difficult to find time. However, if everyone dedicated a little less time to watching Netflix and a little more time to an altruistic activity, much could be accomplished. Buying someone a coffee doesn’t take much time. Volunteering even once every two months can still have an impact.
Institutions and governments could also play a role by participating in collective action more often instead of competing with one another.
Within a workplace, activities like kindness challenges, or providing time for employees to volunteer could also be effective strategies not only to boost a company’s image, but also improve employee satisfaction.
Even tiny acts of kindness can make a real difference in the world, benefitting both those who give and those who receive.
Similarly, volunteering helps to improve society while bettering the lives of the volunteers themselves.
Taking political action can change society for the better, and can increase activists’ vitality, sense of purpose, and resilience.
When organizations use collective impact to reach common goals, much can be accomplished.
The world can seem like a frightening place, but if each person in it takes even a few minutes out of every week to do something altruistic, it could become kinder and gentler.