The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted everyday life in pervasive ways around the world. It has been over two years since the first coronavirus case was identified in January 2020 in the United States (current count). People have experienced different kinds of lockdowns, closures, reopenings, and reclosures of the economy and schools under rapidly changing policies.“Some people become more cynical and do not believe that changing policies would make any difference.”
Scientists, physicians, and epidemiologists make recommendations on mask mandates, vaccine rollout, and other Covid-related issues based on scientific and clinical data. Policymakers take these recommendations into careful consideration and translate them into public policies accordingly. Unfortunately, as the nation struggles with confusing messages about this virus, what people choose to believe (and eventually enact) has become more and more politicized and polarized.1P. Sol Hart, Sedona Chinn, and Stuart Soroka, “Politicization and Polarization in Covid-19 News Coverage,” Science Communication 42, no. 5 (2020): 679–697. The two camps are rooted in partisan ideologies fed by different news sources in the US political context, which affects how people make sense of this pandemic, react to the outbreak, and make decisions on their behavior and actions in public and private spaces. The health crisis has become a stage for some politicians, as they perform in the disguise of freedom and individual rights. Some people have become more cynical and do not believe that changing policies would make any difference. As one of our participants expressed in his diary: “Politics? What has changed, really? Still the same old anger, fighting, disrespect has continued throughout Covid. Nobody is working together—all about demeaning the other candidate/party to win an election. It doesn’t matter who is in the White House, nobody is doing, or would do, a better job than anyone else.”
Though the public narrative centers around conflict and contradiction, most people have experienced some form of kindness during the pandemic. As we learn more about the contagiousness and lethality of the coronavirus and its variants, we see how strongly interconnected we are and how much we need the benevolence and mercy of others. The pandemic, therefore, has opened new possibilities for us to perceive and rethink “interconnectedness,” experience care in new ways, and learn acts of kindness.
Being kind means having compassion and empathizing with others; acts of kindness include caring for and helping others. Studies2Ana Ciocarlan, Judith Masthoff, and Nir Oren, “Kindness is Contagious: Study into Exploring Engagement and Adapting Persuasive Games for Wellbeing,” UMAP ’18: Proceedings of the 26th Conference on User Modeling, Adaptation and Personalization (July 2018): 311–319. show that practicing kindness can help increase a person’s happiness level and improve their wellbeing in the pre-pandemic period. The purposes of our study, however, are first to enrich the understanding of how acts of kindness, particularly care for others, are learned in families and communities; second, to expand the definition of kindness, as illuminated in our data, which not only refers to caring for others but also oneself; and third, to demonstrate the interconnectedness of us at different levels from this unprecedented time. As one of the participants, Bob, a father with two young boys living in Seattle with his wife, reflected:
I hope that what we take from this is an abiding sense that how we act has an impact, and that we are all bound up in the same system, and that our fates are intertwined, and that collective action is everything. We are in bubbles now, but we are also decidedly not in bubbles. Our individual choices have instant and deadly repercussions. That’s always the case. When we litter, or drive, or vote, or whatever we do—that stuff has an impact. But now we can see it instantly and we can see it in the starkest and most fatal terms.
From May 2020 through February 2021, our team engaged in an ethnographic diary-based study to examine how families representing a cross-section of US households are experiencing the pandemic and what they are learning from it. Thirty-five families3We refer to our participants both as “families” and “households.” By “family” we mean anyone who considers themselves family and who opted to participate, whether or not they lived in the same household. By “household” we mean everyone living under the same roof, whether or not they identified as “family.” All household/family members over the age of 12 were invited to participate; we left it to participants to decide. Our aim was to have multiple participants from each household/family participating by writing separate diary responses (lending insight into how differently positioned people experienced similar things). from diverse social, cultural, linguistic, economic, and geographic backgrounds across the United States responded to weekly prompts asking about their everyday lived experiences in their families and communities, and the life lessons they learned during the pandemic.
Responses made evident the stress that the pandemic engendered in home life, especially in households where adults were juggling the demands of parenting and work. However, families also reported on surprising moments of uplift, including both giving and receiving what may be considered “acts of kindness.”4Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, David Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology 9, no. 2 (2005): 111–131. We found that families learned many valuable lessons about care, compassion, kindness, and love. Our findings demonstrate that, even under the most challenging conditions, participants engaged in kind acts in the form of caregiving in three ways: at the level of self-care, family-care, and community-care.
Self-care ultimately benefits others
Self-care during the pandemic may be considered a “kind” act that ultimately benefits families, communities, and the larger society. Our diary data show that families initiated and invigorated self-care activities such as meditation and other religious and spiritual practices during the pandemic. They took on these practices deliberately to reduce stress and enhance health in all forms: mental, physical, social, emotional, ecological, and spiritual. This included spending time in nature, sharing ancient wisdom about herbal remedies and immune-enhancing practices, changing dietary practices, creating online Bible study and meditation groups, and more.
Some participants took care of themselves by setting new goals. Twelve-year-old Mali, who found school “really boring,” was clear about her personal goals, which she laid out on a vision board. These included drinking more water, being more active, and doing “fun things instead of going to screens.” Another example comes from Luz, who lived with her wife and two preschool-aged children. They started a weight-loss competition with extended family members. They also planned a weekly “family adventure” with their children:
Every week we go out and take a hike or long walk. The four of us plan ahead and look at pictures of our next adventure. This gives our five-year-old something to look forward to. She’ll now ask me what’s our next adventure or she will have me show her pictures of it. We started this two months into the quarantine. After those first two months, we felt like we needed to go out. We’ve done hikes to Griffith Observatory, beach walks, and different nature trails.
The weight-loss competition in Luz’s family enhances their motivation to exercise and helps improve each member’s mental health and physical wellbeing. It also demonstrates that self-care is enacted and intertwined with family-care.
Family-care unites family members and shares happiness
Family-care is a “kind” act that unites family members and enhances well-being for all. Our data show that family members took care of each other and provided crucial financial support and childcare. Children took on more familial responsibilities and grandparents provided care for grandchildren when parents were working from home or outside the home. Some parents created innovative activities and games for their children that strengthened their relationships and ties in the family and addressed difficulties they faced during the pandemic.
For instance, Sam Buzz, a single mother who lived with her two school-aged boys and her parents and brother in California, consciously took care of her boys’ physical and mental health:
For my boys, I meditate with them on my days off work. I take them on bike rides. They really enjoy that, especially my youngest. I’ve noticed my oldest gets a lot of joy from playing with our dog. During the summer, they watched more TV than they should have and played too many video games than they should have, but I just wanted them to be happy amongst so much bad that was and is going on. They had fun. They were joyful at times, laughing out loud at times, relaxed at times and that was the point… I also cook healthy meals for my family. I also try to find the healthiest junk food because that makes my kids happy.
Another example is that Marisol, Águila, and their six-year-old daughter Rosita kept a daily “gratitude journal” and held a weekly “family council” where they talked about how they were feeling. Families did these things on their own, getting ideas and information from their social networks. They also shared their innovative health-related practices with family relatives, friends, and neighbors.
Community-care enhances the sense of benevolence
Community-care involves “kind” acts that provide help and support to neighbors. Our data reveal specific ways that families engaged in community care by showing empathy and compassion to neighbors and providing help. For instance, Thea, a mother of four girls living in Ohio with her husband, shared in her diary about their volunteer work for the local United Way at the beginning of the pandemic:
[We] bought groceries for the elderly shut-ins. Then we dropped them off at the volunteer drop off and they delivered them to the elderly. There were many of these local volunteer opportunities and still are going on during this pandemic. It’s the same for the local school district that’s feeding any children ages 18 and below within the district whether you’re in school or not. They’re continuing this each week until the end of July. It’s all free! That’s 5 breakfasts and 5 lunches. This started around March 20th. The school district stepped up to make sure the students were fed during a time when it could be very hard for families to provide food. This is especially true for those families who relied on the free feeding program through the school.
As Thea reflected on this volunteer experience, she stated that:
I think the biggest change I have seen since the start of this is people’s willingness to be kind. They wave, they say hello, they ask neighbors if they need help. They ask neighbors if they need anything from the stores. They check in on neighbors who may need extra help. The overall willingness to step up and GIVE to others and think of others! Our country needs much more kindness and understanding of one another!
Interconnectedness of self, families, and communities“Cooking for her friends and neighbors made her feel part of a community and reminded her that she was not alone.”
The three dimensions of acts of kindness are certainly interconnected. For instance, Helen, a new immigrant from China and mother of a teenage boy living in North Carolina with her husband, cooked three meals for her family each day. She considered cooking as a way of releasing stress, noting that “it makes me feel very fulfilled to let my family eat healthily and happily.” She explained that cooking could help adjust her mood and strengthen her sense of ritual for the family. She also cooked for her friends and neighbors and delivered to them. Due to the pandemic, she could not gather with friends as she usually did. Cooking for her friends and neighbors made her feel part of a community and reminded her that she was not alone. As she reflected on this experience, she said, “What we can do is to…in the face of the pandemic, adjust our mentality, protect ourselves, so as to be responsible to others.” As a way of sustaining cultural tradition, Helen’s self-care is entwined with her care for her family and the community, which is reciprocal, collectivized, and mutually beneficial.5Marlene Gómez Becerra and Eunice Muneri-Wangari, “Practices of Care in Times of Covid-19,” Frontiers in Human Dynamics 3:648464 (2021).
From our participants’ diaries, we infer that the traditional gendered division of labor in the home has remained strong, with gendered inequities perhaps invigorated by the changes the pandemic brought about. Several studies similarly report that the family and child caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic fell largely on women. Thus, some might read the positive benefits of the pandemic that we have named (increases in care and kindness) in a more skeptical light, seeing this as just one more way that women took up the work of caring for others. Indeed, even the work of writing in the diaries for our project became gendered, with women/mothers writing longer and more entries than most of the male participants.
But it is still important to name and recognize the actions that were taken by participants to improve their own health and well-being, and to better care for others. Indeed, given that studies show a differential negative impact on the mental health of women,6Carl P. Nienhuis and Iris A. Lesser, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Physical Activity Behavior and Mental Well-Being,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, no. 23 (2020): 9036. it is even more important to acknowledge the efforts that women made to attend to their own mental health and well-being, and that of their families. These are efforts that could be reinforced and built upon in the post-pandemic period.
The Covid-19 pandemic offered an opportunity for us to see how strongly interconnected we are. An individual’s choices can affect communities, cities, countries, and even continents due to the nature of highly infectious viruses. This gives us a unique opportunity to rethink individual rights and freedom. Freedom is never “free” for an individual and can never be obtained through the sacrifice of others. Just as our participant Bob shared in his diary at the beginning, “[W]e are all bound up in the same system, and…our fates are intertwined, and… collective action is everything.” Our study illuminates this point, and from it, we draw positive lessons from this global health crisis: lessons that we could learn from as we plan for a post-pandemic future. Our research provides concrete examples of acts of kindness that people can adopt in their own life. While taking better care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities, we could spread mercy, benevolence, support, and love. Through these kind acts, we might mitigate the spread of cynicism, inconsideration, and hatred—and even of the virus.
In addition to our SSRC funding, this project was supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation and from the Bedari Kindness Institute at UCLA. Thanks to the families who participated in our project and to Sophia Ángeles.