To Find Meaning Amid the Crisis, Start by Helping Others

As a researcher of meaning in life, here's my recipe for more meaning.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Lately, I’ve had some trouble concentrating on my work. As it has slowly dawned on me that the coronavirus outbreak is likely to be the biggest global crisis of my lifetime—both in economic terms and in terms of the death toll—suddenly many work tasks I was excited about a few weeks ago now feel utterly meaningless.

What point is there in carrying on my work when half of the world’s population is in lockdown, unemployment is soaring, and the hospitals are filled with patients fighting for their lives?

The question that keeps me awake at night is: What can I do to help? It feels devastating to just watch from the sidelines how the pandemic spreads. I want somehow, in however small way, to contribute. Do what is in my own hands to alleviate the situation.

Here I am not alone. Around the world, the virus has not only awakened fear but also led to resolved action. Thousands of volunteers are sewing masks for health care professionals in areas facing mask shortages, while others volunteer to help with patient transports and calling, buying groceries, and checking in on those in self-isolation.

In times of crisis, humans, as social animals, have a natural urge to help. Research on past crises brought by earthquakes and other natural disasters has demonstrated that these tend to awaken a feeling of shared social identity among people affected—leading to various forms of heroic deeds and coordinated grassroots efforts to help each other.

Source: Pixabay

In fact, we are sometimes more motivated to help others than ourselves. Wharton professor Adam Grant tested how various signs next to hand sanitizers affected health care professionals’ willingness to wash their hands. It turned out that "hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases” was a more compelling message than “hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases,” resulting in 59% higher hand sanitizer usage.

A research team led by Jillian Jordan from Kellogg School of Management already tested (in a not yet peer-reviewed working paper) how to increase people’s willingness to engage in coronavirus prevention behaviors. They framed their message as emphasizing either how coronavirus is a ”serious threat to you” or how it is a ”serious threat to your community.” Again, it was the latter group who demonstrated stronger willingness to wash hands, stop touching other people, and to engage in other preventive measures. As the researchers concluded, ”When it comes to encouraging people to adopt COVID-19 prevention behaviors, ‘don’t spread it’ is a more effective message than ‘don’t get it.'"

So if you are looking for some meaningfulness amid all this chaos, focus on helping others. Research has shown that helping others is one of the key sources from which humans derive meaningfulness to their lives. In one of my own studies, we put students to play a simple computer game in two conditions: One group just played the game, the other group was told that for every correct answer, a small donation would be made to the United Nations World Food Program to help starving people. Exactly the same game, but with an opportunity to make a positive contribution. Afterward, the contribution group reported the game as being significantly more meaningful than the control group. Other studies have similarly shown that no matter whether you are looking for meaning in life or meaningful work, making a positive contribution to the lives of others is often your best bet.

Right now, opportunities to help others abound. First, think about your work (if you still have that). How could you use your professional skills and resources to help others? In my case, as a researcher, I have tried to find links between my key areas of expertise and the current situation to see where my research-based knowledge could be of most use. Could I, for example, use my expertise in research on meaningfulness to help people find meaning in the current situation?

Beyond work, think about volunteering opportunities. Do you have some special skills that might be of use right now? Is there something you could do to help people in your local community or in your neighborhood? Do you have money or other resources you could donate to support various organizations and peoples fighting the disease?

Of course, it can be that keeping yourself and those close to you safe, sane, and healthy might be all you have time for right now. That is OK as well—helping one’s loved ones is a powerful source of meaning. Furthermore, remember that just by following the guidelines of self-isolation and by washing your hands you are already doing something highly meaningful—helping to stop the outbreak of the virus. Sitting on your couch has never been more meaningful than right now.

As a researcher of meaning in life, my recommendation for you is thus the same as my own way of coping and finding meaning amid this pandemic: Find ways, however small they might be, to help others and make some positive contribution to humankind.