The Power of Kindness in a Post-Pandemic World
We’re in a turbulent time as we move toward a post-pandemic world where tensions are flaring domestically and globally. Losing a year to COVID-19 led to psychological stress and emotional exhaustion that doesn’t magically disappear as we approach our new normal. Dealing with the pandemic forced people into isolation and brought chaos to many relationships as they struggled to figure out coping skills for anxiety within a radically changed world.
Now that vaccines and declining infections allow us to reclaim our lives, tempers are still short. One dramatic example is the recent attack on a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, who lost two teeth when a passenger punched her. It’s one of 394 incidents tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration through May 25, 2021. In contrast, there were only 146 such incidents in all of 2019.
Small Steps, Big Impact
We can’t erase divisiveness or the emotional exhaustion that drives some people to lash out but there’s one simple way we can make a big impact on the people around us: kindness. The power of kindness is discussed a lot more lately, and it’s not just a buzzword. Research shows that kindness helps offset stress symptoms by decreasing stress hormones and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and reducing depression. That’s some pretty powerful stuff!
Students were already laboring under the weight of increased psychological stress and anxiety even before the pandemic, with 63% of college students reporting overwhelming anxiety in the 2018 National College Health Assessment (American College Health Association PDF source). Unsurprisingly, 71% of college students in a recent study reported that their anxiety level increased during the pandemic. Now those students are subject to the same worries as the rest of the population, but with the added burden of trying to make good grades.
Kindness in the Classroom
How can kindness help us be better educators, and better human beings, in this time of emotional exhaustion and psychological stress? Let’s explore how to use this powerful tool to support positive change.
One simple way is to congratulate students for small wins. Not every student earns an A, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a B or C student worked any less hard. That struggling learner who barely got a B on the milestone might be a first responder pulling extra shifts that interfere with study time. They might be a busy parent neglecting their own schooling because they’re homeschooling their children. They’re doing the best they can while under psychological stress. Having someone congratulate them on their accomplishments can mean the difference between giving up or going on.
Dr. Jeff Czarnec, associate dean of social sciences, solicits nominations from his criminal justice faculty and gives kudos to students who overcome psychological stress, emotional exhaustion and a wide variety of stressors to persevere in their classes. Grades don’t matter; grit does. This is one of dozens of responses underscoring the difference that kindness can make:
Hello Dr. Czarnec,
I wanted to take a moment to respond to your email and thank you. I don't know if you realize how much that message meant to me. I had never been a very good student in high school or even most of my college career. Always distracted by my surroundings. (The instructor’s) class has been pretty difficult for me because he asks for things to be done that I had never even heard of, like an annotated bibliography and literature review. So to receive this message from you and to know (the instructor) thought enough of me to mention me to you is an enormous feeling that I never had with school. It inspires me to persevere to finish what I started so long ago.
Again, thank you for the kind words.
That small bit of recognition can make a huge difference!
Show Students They’re Not Alone
Another way to help learners is to share information on stress symptoms and coping skills for anxiety. Even with sky-high numbers of students feeling stressed, there’s still a stigma surrounding the simple act of asking for help. Treat students with kindness and normalize conversations on things like emotional exhaustion and psychological stress. Share research articles and links to helpful sites so students have on-demand help resources. The more you talk about these issues, the more likely your students are to do the same and to seek help when they need it.
We help our students with kindness in the classroom, and we help both ourselves and others when we carry kindness forward into all aspects of our lives. It helps reduce our own psychological stress even as we help out others. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation sponsors World Kindness Day annually on November 13, but kindness doesn’t need to wait for a certain time of year. These ideas are adapted from the foundation’s list of kindness ideas:
- Text a friend, family member or co-worker with an uplifting or complimentary message.
- Let someone cut in front of you when you’re driving, and give them a friendly wave and smile.
- Pay for the order of the person behind you in the drive-through line. This random act of kindness often compounds itself as people pay for each other’s orders down through the line. In 2020, over 900 cars took part in a random act of kindness chain at a Minneapolis Dairy Queen, shattering the location’s occasional string of 15 to 20 cars. The chain lasted for two and a half days, with the last customer of the evening leaving money to pay for the next day’s first car.
That last example plays into studies that show witnessing kindness makes people more likely to do kind acts for others, proving that kindness really is contagious. We’ll probably see post-pandemic tension persist for quite a while, but a random act of kindness is a powerful tool we can use to make a difference. Unlike COVID-19, it’s a force for positive transformation that improves the world as it spreads, and we can all choose to help it along.
Dr. Barbara Lesniak is an associate dean on the social sciences team at Southern New Hampshire University. She handles the programming side of the undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. Her past experience includes 15 years designing and delivering classroom and web-based courses in the corporate world and providing face-to-face and online counseling services. She specialized in helping online clients in acute crisis situations. Lesniak is also a freelance writer focusing on financial and personal development topics. She has a PsyD in psychology and completed her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University in 2020.