The following piece was originally published on Alexandra Harrison’s blog entitled Supporting Child Caregivers in March 2020, which can be found here.
The World is a Different Place
I just received an email from a colleague notifying me of the cancelation of a professional meeting that we had been scheduled to participate in. He said, “The world is a different place,” and I was struck by how true that was. As all of you, I have been watching and listening to the news dominated by the pandemic. There is a lot of redundancy in the advice about how to cope, but I found some good ideas I wanted to pass on to my readers.
Vivek Murthy, Obama’s surgeon general, spoke eloquently on NPR. He recommended that all of us spend 15 minutes a day connecting with our friends, family, and acquaintances online or on the phone. He also suggested that when we are doing this we discontinue multi-tasking, in other words, pay attention to our conversation and stop doing other things. Finally, he suggested that we reach out and help someone.
First of all, I liked his recommendation to spend 15 minutes connecting to others. I have been strenuously recommending connecting but hadn’t thought to put a minimum time on it. It reminds me of the suggestion that children sing the Happy Birthday jingle twice in order to achieve a good 2-minute hand washing. For those of us who have a tendency towards obsessionalism, it is useful to make sure to get those 15 minutes in, though I suspect that once we experience the satisfaction of reconnecting, we will be spending more time than that. It is true that the crisis has brought people to mind that I don’t think of in my typical daily routine. It brings me pleasure to feel connected with them again and a sense of urgency to make sure that they are safe and healthy. I, as many of you, have reconnected with friends that I have not been in touch with for a long time, and that feels good.
Second, the idea of multitasking is an interesting one. Multitasking is a more complicated subject than it might seem. Of course, it can be off-putting and even rude when someone doesn’t give you their full attention. It can also be a way of focusing attention if you are a little stressed, as long as the multiple tasks do not require the same kind of attention. For example, doodling or knitting or similar repetitive rhythmic fine motor tasks can actually help focus attention. But I know what Dr. Murthy means. It can be a good exercise to force oneself to focus attention exclusively on another person. That brings you further in touch not only with the other, but also with yourself—your own thoughts and feelings.
Third, the idea of reaching out to help somebody is something not as frequently mentioned, but the stories and videos of people in Italy, and now in New York, thanking health workers and first responders by making music, or clapping or cheering out their windows. There are other stories, though, of people leaving food or offering to shop for elderly neighbors, or others who are working to feed the homeless. These are important stories not only because they help those in need, but also because they help those who help.
Altruism is a human characteristic. We know that very young children engage in helping behavior. Shortly after their first birthday, children spontaneously begin to help others (Warneken, 2013; Svetlova et al, 2010). This is true even if it costs them something, for example, if they have to interrupt an interesting activity to help another (Warneken and Tomasello, 2008) or if they have to overcome numerous obstacles to do so. The desire to be helpful for its own sake is true of adults, as well. A study of adults offered a reward for giving blood found that the subjects who gave a donation for the good of others, rather than for a concrete reward, were more willing to give (Costa-Font et al, 2012). Even recalling memories of generous spending produced emotional reward, suggesting a “positive feedback loop” between prosocial spending and happiness (Aknin et al, 2012).
I would suggest that a powerful motivation for altruistic behavior in humans is the persistent desire to restore disrupted connections, as they are experienced in relationships and also within themselves (Harrison, 2019). This includes loss of faith that their environment can be trusted. Giving to others is an adaptive, evolutionarily beneficial attitude and behavior that expands the individual’s repertoire for healing disrupted connections, for dealing with trauma and loss.
Aknin L, Dunn E, Norton M (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness, J Happiness Stud, 13:347-355.
Costa Font J, Jofre-bonet M, Yen S (2012). Not all incentives wash out the warm glow: The case of blood donation revisited (Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper No 1157). London, UK: London School of Economics and Political Science, Center for Economic Performance.
Harrison A (2019). Altruism as reparation of mismatch or disruption in the self, Psychoanal Inq, 37(7).
Svetlova M, Nichols S, Brownell C (2010). Toddlers’ procosial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child Devel, 81(6):1814-1827.
Warneken F (2013). The development of altruistic behavior in children and chimpanzees. Social Research, 80:431-442.
Warneken F, Tomasello M (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month olds. Developmental Psychol. 44(6):1785-1788.
Alexandra Murray Harrison, M.D. is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in Adult and Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and on the Faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program at University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Harrison has a private practice in both adult and child psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In the context of visits to orphanages in Central America and India, Dr. Harrison has developed a model for mental health professionals in developed countries to volunteer their consultation services to caregivers of children in care in developing countries in the context of a long term relationship with episodic visits and regular skype and video contact.
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