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Compassion in Difficult Times

Humans are social beings. Prosocial behaviors — activities like helping, sharing, and comforting — improve our social bonds and have beneficial effects on our mental health (Dunfield, 2014). By actively engaging in these behaviors, we can improve our personal relationships and better our mental health.

As our society has drastically changed during the past few months due to COVID-19, many of us have not been getting the same amount of social interaction that we used to. We have been told to “socially distance” ourselves from others in order to slow the spread of the virus. Likewise, with a global pandemic, economic downturn, and a politically fraught social climate, it can be easy to focus on ourselves and our own suffering. Combined with decreased social interactions, however, this concoction can leave us feeling isolated, frustrated, and lonely. Now more than ever, it is important to engage in compassion and prosocial behaviors in order to stabilize and improve our mental health.

With that being said, we can continue to physically distance ourselves from others while still providing each other with social and emotional support. Here are some ideas for engaging in positive, pro-social behaviors. Some may have to be modified to account for COVID-19 restrictions in your area, but implementing even one could help improve your day.

  • Start a gratitude journal: gratitude is related to fewer depressive symptoms (Lambert, 2012). Other ways to show gratitude could include writing a thank you note or saying “thank you” more in your day-to-day life.

  • Find ways to volunteer: people who volunteer are less likely to become depressed, and more likely to experience feelings of happiness (Wilson, 1999). Finding a cause you care about is a great way to contribute towards a larger goal while also making you feel better along the way.

  • Spend money on someone else: research has found that those who spend money on other people experience more happiness than those who spend money on themselves. You don’t have to spend a lot to experience this rush, however — studies have found that spending as little as $5 on another person can result in significant gains in happiness (Dunn, 2008). A gift can be anything from a candy bar to a new sweater — the gift matters less than the act of giving.

  • Reach out to friends: giving your time and lending an ear to a friend can be mutually beneficial. Research has shown that when you help another person, both the helper and recipient experience increased happiness (Weinstein, 2010).

Although these may be difficult times, extending compassion to others by engaging in prosocial behaviors is a beneficial way to not only improve the mood of others, but improve your own mood as well.


Dunfield, K. A. (2014). A construct divided: prosocial behavior as helping, sharing, and comforting subtypes. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 958.

Dunn, E., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 319(5870), 1687–1688.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Stillman, T. F. (2012). Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 26(4), 615-633.

Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. (2010). When Helping Helps: Autonomous Motivation for Prosocial Behavior and Its Influence on Well-Being for the Helper and Recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 222–244. 10.1037/a0016984

Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (1999). The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62(4), 141–168.


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