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Why being kind is as important as ever

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Your parents told you to be nice to people. Guess what? They were right. Here’s why.

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Doing good doesn’t only benefit other people. It helps us, too.

Studies show that helping others boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel satisfied. Another benefit to feeling rewarded when we do good: It lowers our stress levels. Who couldn’t use that right now?

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, people everywhere are feeling anxious about their health, their families, their jobs, and their futures.

“When we are all feeling lower than we are used to feeling, with some levels of situational depression, we all need a boost,” says psychologist Mary Berge, a member of the Rotary Club of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, who has led discussions with many Rotary clubs about coping during the pandemic.

“There has been a lot of research that when we are helping others, or when we are doing something for someone else, our reward centers light up in the brain and our stress levels go down as cortisol is released.”

It feels good to do good

In a 2016 study, researchers asked participants about scenarios in which they either gave or received support. The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, found that MRI tests showed only the instances of giving correlated to reduced stress and enhanced activity in the brain’s reward centers — which suggests that giving support ultimately had greater mental benefits than receiving it.

Many studies have established a connection between volunteering and improved health. In the brain, acts of kindness release powerful chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, elevating our mood, increasing reward stimuli, and reducing stress. Compassion evokes lower heart rates and reduces coronary distress. Oxytocin is also connected to social bonding, so as it is released, the ties that bind us are strengthened.

Researchers at Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway and the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany explored the relationship between volunteering and well-being in 12 European countries, noting the relative lack of such studies outside the U.S. Their 2018 analysis found that people who are or have been volunteers report greater well-being than people who have not.  

And in a 2013 Canadian study posted by the National Library of Medicine, researchers looked at the effect on the cardiovascular health of adolescents who do volunteer work. The study confirmed that helping people reduced the volunteers’ body mass index and other cardiovascular risk factors.

Coping during the pandemic

Berge, a training leader for Rotary, saw anxiety rising among her patients because of the pandemic and developed the Staying Sane During COVID-19 presentation. She has delivered the talk by videoconference more than 70 times, mostly at Rotary-related events.

“Rotarians in particular have a high need for being compassionate,” says Berge. “In my Zoom meetings, I hear people say, ‘What can we do to help?’ They are desperate to get that feel-good feeling again. I think they see that in doing these things, it relieves our own stress, sadness, anxiety, and irritability.”

Rotary member Jenny Stotts, a social worker, child advocate, and trauma specialist, has written about how we can increase our resiliency, adapt to adversity during the pandemic, and emerge stronger.

Rotarians in particular have a high need for being compassionate. They are desperate to get that feel-good feeling again.


“When we express meaningful and intentional gratitude or engage in planned acts of kindness, we experience the benefits of serotonin and dopamine, which are two neurotransmitters responsible for us feeling pleasure or joy,” says Stotts, a member of the Rotary Club of Athens Sunrise, Ohio, USA. “Not only do we benefit others from this activity, but it has a way of recharging our batteries.”

Stotts notes that when we do acts of good repeatedly, something interesting happens in our brains. “If we engage in a regular daily practice of kindness and gratitude, we are essentially carving out pathways within our brain that make us healthier and a little more emotionally stable.”

Because of all this, Stotts tells her staff and clients, “You deserve to be your kindest self.”

Rotary members may not realize the significant role they can play in changing how people think, Stotts says.

“When we, as leaders in our community, adapt a way of thinking — that level of intentional gratitude and intentional kindness — we have a way of setting a really good example,” she says. “I think it is a calming and stabilizing force. We can set that tone for our entire club and for our communities.”

  1. Members of the Rotary clubs of Almere and Almere Weerwater, Netherlands, deliver bouquets of tulips to health care workers at a facility in Almere.

  2. Bruno Weis, a member of the Rotary Club of Bensheim-Heppenheim, Germany, and colleagues perform for seniors outside a senior living center.

  3. Members of the Rotary Club of Saint-Denis, Réunion, set up computers and tablets with wireless routers for a local nursing home to enable family members to connect with residents.

Many Rotary, Rotaract, and Interact clubs are setting that tone and finding creative ways to be kind to their neighbors. Here are just a few of them:

 

The Rotary Club of Saint-Denis, Réunion, and the Inner Wheel Club Saint-Denis Vanille, Réunion, France, bought computers and tablets with wireless routers to give to a local nursing home to enable family members to connect with residents while the home was closed to visitors due to the pandemic.

 

 

 

The Rotary clubs of Almere and Almere Weerwater, Netherlands, purchased 2,600 bouquets totaling 52,000 tulips to give to health care workers at 77 locations in Almere.

 

 

 

The Rotary Club of Bensheim-Heppenheim, Germany, provided a two-hour virtual musical concert for residents and caregivers in senior living homes. Bruno Weis, a member of the club, and two colleagues performed from areas outside the facilities while residents watched from the safety of their balconies or nearby park benches.

 

 

 

The Interact Club of Kayhi, Alaska, USA, held a virtual high school prom for more than 500 students with help from a radio station that’s managed by a Rotary member. The club paid for a band and conducted dance and trivia contests, with prizes from local businesses.

 

 

 

The Rotary Club of Downtown Los Angeles, California, USA, built and stocked a dozen public bookcases around the city so children and adults would have better access to books. People use them to both take and give books. The libraries reach areas without many sources of books, especially when public libraries are closed.

 

 

 

The Rotary Club of Molina de Segura, Spain, which holds an annual art contest for children, extended the age range to allow entries from children 3-18 years old and invited students throughout the country to submit art work that expressed why it is important to stay at home during the pandemic. The club’s objective was to give students something to do while social distancing and allow them to express how they were feeling about the pandemic.

 

 

 

Kenya, Africa, has a thriving flower industry, but during the lockdown, many large-scale flower exporters and small-scale growers have been unable to sell their blooms. Rotary members in District 9212 partnered with other organizations to purchase and distribute flowers at five different hospitals. The goal was to show appreciation for the health care workers but also support the growers and let them know they are a valued part of the community.