How to build hope for a post-COVID world: join up

In these times of crisis, volunteering can help heal the world, and help yourself as well. Photo: Shutterstock
In these times of crisis, volunteering can help heal the world, and help yourself as well. Photo: Shutterstock

For nearly all Australians, everything about COVID-19 seems to be precisely calculated to fall into the zone of dull resentment. The threat is serious enough for most people to feel anxious, but not serious enough for them to feel terrified, which might be exciting. The precautions are taxing enough to make us feel burdened, but not tough enough to let us feel heroic. The spread isn't fast enough to make us despairing or slow enough for us to feel relieved, which makes it hard for us to maintain our commitment to the steady and unceasing grind that's the only thing that will get us through this.

The hazards along the way - the long, long way - are depression and boredom and burnout. The world is full, I'm glad to say, of suggestions on how to maintain your mental health in these gruelling times. Don't be too hard on yourself; be kind to others; keep up your relationships; exercise; learn new things. All good advice, and worth repeating.

People in the not-for-profit sector, the sector that sustains our communities, would take it a step further. With the coronavirus, if you can't beat it, join up. Joining up stops you coming apart. Most health advice focuses on you as an individual. Well, you can certainly live longer if you stop smoking, or if you exercise regularly, or if you cut back on alcohol, but there's more to it than that.

There's also you as a social being, and that's just as important. As the esteemed Professor Robert Putnam said, summing up the evidence a few decades ago, "Controlling for your blood chemistry, age, gender, whether or not you jog, and for all other risk factors, your chances of dying over the course of the next year are cut in half by joining one group, and cut to a quarter by joining two groups".

We can't explain that effect, not with any degree of detail, but it's true nonetheless. We've just had yet another reminder of the benefits of joining up. A recent large-scale study by Dr Eric S. Kim and others published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, looked at the benefits of volunteering to the health and well-being of volunteers. It found that adults over 50 who volunteer for at least 100 hours a year (about two hours per week) have a substantially reduced risk of mortality, higher levels of subsequent physical activity, and improved well-being compared to those who don't volunteer.

As Dr Kim said, "Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others. Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn't just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death".

All very well, of course, but it so happens that just now is not the easiest time to become involved with a not-for-profit. You can't just pop along to a meeting, because there aren't many. You can't play with the club if sport is on hold. You can't get to know your neighbours, because they're shrinking into corners to get away from you. How do you become integrated into your community when you have to keep people at a distance?

Some volunteering can be done online, and it's possible to participate in club activities in the cloud, but there's no getting round the fact that much of the attraction of voluntary work, and much, I imagine, of its health benefit, comes from meeting and working with congenial people with common interests up close and personal. What kind of a committee meeting can you have when, as in Victoria now, no more than two people can sit at the same committee table? Still, this is also a time of want, with more and more people needing assistance. When public housing towers in Melbourne were thrown into lockdown, it was the government that made the decision, but it was the voluntary groups that were called on to provide people with food and care.

Whatever help you can give now is uniquely valuable, and building hope for the future is more necessary than ever. I'm with Dr Kim, who said, "Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well. When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well". We want our sacrifices to be worth it. After this, we want a world fit for heroes to live in. Join up with a community group today. Help make our communities stronger.

  • Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits through the pandemic with free resources at: ourcommunity.com.au/saveoursector
This story How to build hope for a post-COVID world first appeared on The Canberra Times.