The Value Of Volunteering: How Doing Good Made Me Feel Good
Illustration by Mr Michael Kirkham
Where are the zombies and looters? A lifetime of ingesting dystopian fiction from Action comics to Mr JG Ballard’s books had braced me for the very worst of humanity coming out of the woodwork when the great social crisis came. But instead, bar a few dust-ups over toilet roll in the early stages of this pandemic, the daily news is currently awash with remarkable acts of charity and benevolence.
From students staging ventilator-building hackathons to record numbers volunteering to help the NHS and medical fetishists giving away their professional-grade kit to frontline workers, the world seems to have gotten remarkably nice again.
“The pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours,” environmentalist Mr George Monbiot noted in The Guardian recently. “In times of crisis, we rediscover our social nature.”
However, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that my own immediate response to our current crisis was rather less socially responsible. Rather than designing a piece of medical hardware or leading a community isolation bingo session from my balcony, I went into something of a tailspin. My usually robust sleep schedule went out the window, my anxiety levels went from an equitable three to a nerve-jangling 11, and I spent the first week refreshing the BBC News homepage approximately 4,000 times a day.
The turning point came a week in, after reading a news story about the self-organising community groups that were springing up all over the country in readiness for the impending lockdown. I signed up with my local chapter via Facebook, before algorithmic prompts started to point me towards similar groups that were already appearing nearby.
Within 12 hours, I was standing at my door enthusiastically chatting to the human dynamo who was wrangling our local group. This young woman and her peers were organising things with a speedy efficiency. Students at the local university pooled their printing credits and ran off thousands of leaflets with our contact details for distribution in the area, and local delivery drivers utilised empty haulage space to move supplies around the borough as they worked. I could offer nothing as practical, but with my rucksack stuffed full of handbills, I set off that night to leaflet the local streets and estates.
It was a mundane and undemanding task, especially when compared with the genuine acts of life-altering heroism that are now part and parcel of the daily news cycle. But that night I slept well and felt calmer.
Since then, daily requests come through to our group for the quotidian jobs that have suddenly become potentially hazardous missions for vulnerable people. My main task has become delivering medication to housebound patients for the local pharmacy. The amount of work ebbs and flows, but I notice a clear link between volunteering and my own sense of wellbeing. In short, the more I do for others, the better I feel. But why?
“If you didn’t feel good about it, you wouldn’t do it, and the social contract that natural selection has engineered would collapse”
People worldwide have evidently been grappling with the same question, some looking to art for answers. In mid-April, The Times reported that bookshops in Japan were selling so many copies of Mr Albert Camus’ The Plague – a portrayal of the besieged Algerian town of Oran as disease ravages its population – that vendors were having to ration the book (in one month, the title sold the same number of copies as in the previous 31 years).
The book is told from the perspective of Dr Rieux and describes how in the midst of crisis, life becomes a simple assessment of what it means to be a member of a society. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” he says. “It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency… (and) in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”
The only problem is that my “job” – writing things such as this – is of almost no use in a time of crisis. I couldn’t claim to be doing anything as significant as Dr Rieux, so that didn’t explain my sense of wellbeing. Was it instead possible that Dr Rieux felt compelled to act the way that he did because we’re in some way hardwired to be nice to our neighbours?
“Up to a point,” says Mr Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at University of Oxford. “Our willingness to give unstinting help to people is limited to our 150 friends and family, and especially family. Beyond that, our willingness is actually quite low, and common only if the cost is very low.”
However, he suggests that the boost one gets from volunteering is linked to a greater sense of personal security: “We are most willing to help family because we receive benefits in return; the friends that make up the rest of our social world, it’s a case of mutualism: sharing the costs of successfully surviving and reproducing. Here, we all gain more by cooperating rather in the way a hunting pack of predators can kill larger prey if they work together than if they hunt alone.”
While it sounds fairly unromantic when described in that way, it’s something akin to karma. Or, as he summarises, “If you didn’t feel good about it, you wouldn’t do it, and the social contract that natural selection has engineered would collapse.”
But society hasn’t collapsed in the face of coronavirus. Instead, this current crisis has spurred ordinary people into astonishing feats of humanity. From the poorly equipped carers to the communal outbreaks of celebratory applause for the NHS, it all seems a long way from the fractious state that we’ve spent the last few years in as a country.
There isn’t one key reason that explains why helping your neighbours feels good, but volunteering to do so is a way of assigning yourself a role that does matter – at least, a little. And in doing so, it makes you feel like you’re proactively shaping your situation, rather than passively being buffeted around by events. In the people I meet – the women grafting in the pharmacy, the neighbours I’d never spoken to until I did their laundry, the students, white-van men, stoners and journalists filling up the Mutual Aid group – I’m reminded of Mr Camus’ essential, guiding truth from The Plague: that even at the most difficult of times, when we’re living with death and lockdowns and loneliness, “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Find your local Mutual Aid group here