THE ENDURING POWER OF ALTRUISM IN TRYING TIMES

April 22, 2020
THE ENDURING POWER OF ALTRUISM IN TRYING TIMES

2020 arrived in a rush of excitement. We were eager to leave the old decade behind, and forge a new path to happiness and success. The corona pandemic started to accelerate not long after the confetti was cleaned up, and by March, the whole world began to realise just how different 2020 could be.

Empty shelves at the grocery store, cancelled cultural and sporting events, hospitals overloaded with sick patients – this is not how anyone would have drawn up the start of a fresh decade – but there’s an upside to historic adversities like COVID-19 . Here are three examples to show the enduring power of altruism in trying times.

1. New terminology

Just a few weeks after “social distancing” entered the mainstream vocabulary on the heels of coronavirus, another new term appeared: Caremongering. It began as a Facebook group in Halifax, Canada, aimed at providing material help and emotional support to people in self-isolation or quarantine. Someone might afraid and not know what to believe. They might be in need of a specific item, an important piece of information, or a ride.

Caremongering was conceived as the antithesis to scaremongering – a way to flood communities with a feeling of support and hope. It spread quickly across Canada, branching into dozens of Facebook groups with over 30,000 active members and counting.

2. Surprising science

Christina Karns, a scientist at the University of Oregon (USA), asked research participants to watch a computer screen as real money was moved into 1) their own personal bank account, or 2) a food bank. By measuring the brainwaves of participants, Karns found that many people had a strong response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex when they saw money going to charity. This is an area of the brain that calculates risk and reward, and can trigger a release of feel-good brain chemicals when stimulated in certain ways.

A number of scientific studies have taken steps to uncover the emotional and physical power of gratitude, including the connection between feeling grateful and giving more. Of course, the beauty of giving is that money is only one medium. The more grateful we are, the more likely we’ll give time, support, advice, laughter to others – thereby reinforcing the cycle.

3. An unlikely donor for bushfire relief

Although the onset of coronavirus may have taken over the headlines (and rightfully so), Australians will be processing the devastation of the 2019-2020 bushfires for a long time. The outpouring of support from people around the world has been magnificent, but one of the most touching stories involves a lizard – an Argentine black tegu, to be exact – whose paintings were sold to raise money for Australian bushfire relief.

The lizard, whose name is Winston, spontaneously walked through a bunch of paint and proceeded across a canvas, creating unique designs. After checking with a veterinarian to determine what type of paint would be safe for Winston to use, he was allowed to paint to his heart’s content, with all proceeds going to bushfire relief. “I know we can’t make millions,” Winston’s owner wrote on Instagram, “but we will try our best.”

The power of altruism in trying times

History doesn’t always play out the way we expect. Events can unfold swiftly and surely, changing day-to-day realities in Australia and around the world. But with every adversity we face, there are new opportunities to give of ourselves, and to show solidarity with our fellow human beings.

COVID-19 will surely be remembered as one of the great calamities – and wake-up calls – of this century. It will also be looked upon as a moment when being physically apart reminded us of the power of sticking together through thick and thin.