Elizabeth Dunn is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.
Last Friday, I got the AstraZeneca vaccine and within minutes, I felt chills run through my body – not from the vaccine itself, but from thinking about all the people who made this tiny, life-preserving pinprick possible. I felt grateful to the scientists at the University of Oxford who developed my vaccine, and equally, the brave research participants who volunteered their own bodies to make sure it was safe for the rest of us. This overwhelming feeling of gratitude spurred me to do something that had been languishing on my mental to-do-list for a while: I signed up to become a monthly donor for UNICEF to help deliver COVID-19 vaccines to high-risk individuals in lower income countries.
As a professor at the University of British Columbia, I conduct research on happiness and other positive emotions. So, while my husband and I drove home from getting vaccinated, I told him a little bit about the science of gratitude. Research in my field has shown that gratitude doesn’t just feel good; it’s a powerful motivator that spurs people to want to take action, to help others. Psychologist Michael McCullough and his colleagues argue that gratitude may even be an “adaptation for altruism,” serving as the emotional engine that drives our species’ exceptional willingness to help total strangers.
Now, it’s time to fire up that engine. If we want to end this global pandemic, we need to vaccinate the entire world, a challenge that UNICEF calls “one of the largest collective undertakings in human history.” By harnessing gratitude, I believe we can rise to this grand challenge.
In the days – or even the minutes – after Canadians get vaccinated, they should be offered the opportunity to make a donation to help people in lower-income countries get vaccinated too. After my husband and I got our shots, the pharmacist reminded us that we would need to wait around for 15 minutes (just to be sure we didn’t have an allergic reaction). We used this time to take “vaccine selfies” to post on our social-media accounts. But as a behavioural scientist, I see this required waiting period as an opportunity: It provides an optimal window to offer newly-vaccinated people the chance to pay it forward by making a donation to an organization like UNICEF or Gavi’s Vaccine Alliance.
At government-run clinics in Vancouver, where I live, nurses are already appointed to chat with people who have just gotten their vaccines. While monitoring these people for rare allergic reactions, nurses could tell them about the opportunity to donate a few dollars to get a vaccine to a health care worker in the developing world.
But let’s not just leave this campaign to nurses, who have already borne so much of the pandemic burden. Every Canadian with a social-media account has a role to play. After getting vaccinated, I felt a strong urge to share my good news with all my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. But posting vaccine selfies on social media has generated a sensible backlash at a time when many people don’t have access to these life-saving drugs. Just a month ago, I found myself seething with jealousy after seeing yet another young American friend posting about getting their second shot, as though blissfully unaware of their own profound privilege.
Yet, publicly rejoicing in the good fortune of getting a vaccine might do some real good by encouraging vaccine-hesitant friends to get the shot. And let’s face it: After a year without birthday parties or weddings, we all need something to celebrate. So, last Friday, I changed out of my pandemic uniform – Lululemon leggings and hoodie – and put on a party dress. I got my shot, took my V-day selfies, and shared them on Facebook, along with my plan to donate to UNICEF’s vaccine campaign. Within hours, I was thrilled to see some of my freshly vaccinated Facebook friends passing along the same donation plan to their own social networks.
Meanwhile though, other friends may have wondered whether individual donations matter at all, in the face of such a grand challenge. Indeed, UNICEF Canada’s website explains that they have been “tasked with delivering two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines.” In a TED2019 talk, I argued that presenting people with such broad, overwhelming challenges can be counterproductive; instead, organizations like UNICEF should help individuals envision how exactly their own small donations can make a difference.
Of course, individual contributions alone won’t get the whole world vaccinated, and not everyone can afford to donate after a year of economic hardship. So, we also need businesses and governments to make hard tradeoffs to enable rapid vaccination for those in lower-income countries. The Canadian government reserved more vaccines per capita than any other country in the world, enough to vaccinate our entire population multiple times over. And even after all Canadians have had a chance to get vaccinated, it may be tempting for our government to hoard that stockpile. But if millions of ordinary Canadians celebrate their own V-day by donating to help vaccinate those in poorer countries, we can lead our government to do the right thing: sharing this precious medicine with countries in desperate need of it.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.