How to Feel Instantly Hopeful

The psychological benefits of solving someone else’s problems

Photo: Zbynek Pospisil/Getty Images

The other day, someone I follow on Twitter posted an open offer: If anyone in New York City had an elderly relative who needed help signing up for their Covid vaccine online, they’d be happy to lend a hand. I thought of my own grandmothers, who are both 91 and rely on a network of kids and grandkids to navigate the digital labyrinths of modern life. Then I thought of elders who don’t have this kind of support, and the relatives who may not be able to offer it.

It all dredged up a feeling I barely recognized, this online acquaintance’s gesture of goodwill and, for lack of a better term, usefulness in response to a real problem. It took me a minute to identify it: hope.

That’s no coincidence. Usefulness is inherently hopeful, especially right now.

As you’ve probably heard (and almost certainly felt), this has been the winter of the “pandemic wall.” As Maya Kosoff points out in GEN, this new plateau isn’t only the sum of a year’s worth of emotional exhaustion, combined with the ambient blegh of the season. We’re also experiencing, on top of all that other stuff, the gnaw of powerlessness in the face of cumulative institutional failures. Part of what makes us feel like we’ve hit the wall is that feeling of futility.

So, it’s not surprising that I felt a surge of optimism from seeing a bit of altruism in action. I’d begun to forget that I can still be of use to myself and to others, even when I’m feeling demoralized by forces beyond my control. And that I can make an impact without leaving the couch.

The perks of solvable problems (and how to find them)

Back in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, therapist and Forge writer Kathleen Smith wrote something that’s stuck with me ever since: “Problem-solving isn’t a result of hope. It’s what calms us down and instills hope in us.” When the pandemic wall is so close to my face that I can see my reflection in its surface, I remind myself, Okay, maybe it’s time to solve some problems.

The trouble is that some of our problems aren’t realistically solvable, at least not for any single person on their own. This is a global health crisis, after all, not a Rubik’s Cube. But within the bigger picture of broken systems and mortal bodies, Smith is absolutely right: There are meaningful actions you can take to improve your daily life. You simply need to look closer to find the solvable micro-problems within the capital-P Problem.

A contagion of usefulness

Research shows that acting altruistically activates your brain’s reward center. Being kind feels good.

But there’s another dynamic at play here, too. Doing something useful for someone else reminds you of the power you have to affect positive change in spite of forces beyond your control.

We tend not to think of altruism as an expression of problem-solving, but it is. Every act of kindness can be traced back to a solvable problem — a bite-sized chunk of a complex challenge. Volunteering at a food pantry doesn’t solve the systemic problems of economic inequity and food insecurity, for instance, but it ensures that some people who would otherwise go hungry get fed.

The other thing about action is that it’s contagious. When you see other people affect change, it inspires you to act, too. You’re reminded of all the things you’re capable of doing and ways to be of use.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen many more examples of good Samaritans offering their time to connect elderly strangers to vaccination appointments. Via Facebook groups and NextDoor, WhatsApp neighborhood groups and community mutual aid networks, people are modeling kindness and connection. They’re not solving the capital-P Problems we’re all facing down, but they’re making things better. They’re being useful, and that counts.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge