Be nice, until it’s time to not be nice, a wise man once said. And if there’s a time to be nice, it’s certainly now. As life gets more uncertain and government funding gets stretched more thinly, people everywhere are feeling the strain. And while it’s certainly worth contributing to charities that support different communities around the world – GiveWell can help your contribution do the most good – there’s a lot to be said for helping out closer to home.
In studies, social networks – or a lack of them – have been shown to be as powerful predictors of mortality as smoking, drinking or high blood pressures, and a lack of social networks or support can produce long-term damage to physiological health via raised stress hormones, poorer immune function and cardiovascular health. Loneliness also makes it harder to build willpower and resist bad habits, leading to longer-term health problems.
Tribe author Sebastian Junger, among others, argues that our modern living habits are contributing to a mental health crisis, as we commute to work and don’t make connections to the communities we live in – rather than making sacrifices and helping one another out. There might be no easy answers to our modern malaise, but a good start is to get involved in your community. Here’s how to take your first steps.
Skill-share with new arrivals
Refugees represent a tiny fraction of the UK population, and while they’re waiting for legal recognition it’s very difficult for them to meet locals in communities they live in outside of the formal structures of support services. This leaves them lonely and isolated, but also makes social integration tougher.
TimePeace aims to help by offering skill-swaps between locals and new arrivals - maybe you’d like to learn Arabic in exchange for guitar lessons, or introduce someone to your local area in return for them teaching you their traditional cuisine. If you can’t get out and about there’s also the option of joining their Slack channel, and jumping into their online chats.
Run for a reason
Bootcamp burpees feeling a bit pointless? Combine fitness with something more purposeful by joining the GoodGym project. After signing up, you’ll run – yes, literally run – to various community-based endeavours ranging from ‘pretty taxing’ to ‘nice cup of tea and a biscuit.’ Helping older people with odd jobs, hauling compost on community gardens or just running regularly to visit an isolated older person. There are projects open in 58 spots around the UK, but you can also open up your own branch – just visit the website.
Volunteer your skills
Donations are one thing, but if you’re looking for a more direct way to help people in need, plenty of organisations need actual volunteers to put in the hours. The Red Cross, for instance, offers a huge range of roles – from helping people settle back into their homes after a hospital stay to being one of the first on the ground in an emergency.
If it’s not easy for you to commit to certain hours or leave the flat, you can also help out in online research roles – such as helping people to trace missing relatives in the aftermath of war or disaster. Search for opportunities in the volunteer section of their site.
Do some digging
If you’re one of the one in eight UK households that doesn’t have a garden, then getting involved in a community garden project might be a good idea for you as well as your neighbourhood – studies suggest that spending time in green spaces can help with your mental health.
Organisations such as NatureHood exist to help you create spaces ranging from mini-flowerbeds to full-blown ponds, and by signing up you’ll be connected with other (occasionally more green-fingered) plant-lovers. Hopefully, you’ll also be doing your bit to help reverse wildlife decline.
Or just lean into what you’re good at
If none of the above appeal, the most important thing is to get started on a project that appeals to you – whether that means doing some proofreading for a women’s refuge, or going door-to-door for a charity. Just do your best – and, as another pair of wise men once said, be excellent to each other.