Professor Robin Banerjee is one of the most well-known researchers in kindness. His work and passion have developed into the School of Kindness as part of his role as the Head of Psychology for the University of Sussex. Our interview went on for an hour, it was insightful. However, I started the conversation by addressing the research on the impact of COVID on human connection and interactions and I was not disappointed by the response.
"It's interesting, actually, we are doing a huge amount of research in that space. Trying to understand the nature of the pandemic and its impacts on communities and our work at Sussex has been no exception, there's been a huge amount of attention to it.
I'm a developmental psychologist, so I work with children and young people focusing particularly on social and emotional development and mental health, which is what brought me into kindness, which we'll come on to later. But all of those topics, as you can imagine, are hugely prominent and relevant at the moment, because we're all thinking about well-being, what really matters for well-being, and how we connect with each other in a context where actually a lot of the things we take for granted have been taken away from us.
We're not seeing other people in person like we used to. Schooling has completely changed for so many children and young people. And that brings with it actually some really interesting transformations. And one of them, I think, is that we're all beginning to ask ourselves more about what really matters, a lot of the things that have had to change practically, because of social distancing, or self-isolation. Those kinds of things have really made us question, ‘is it the things that we were always being told are the most important things that we need to achieve?’ ‘What are the things that we need to demonstrate in order to show that we're making progress?’ Or is it something to do with the values that we hold around our connection with other people, and one of the interesting things that we've found is that, although there's a huge mix, in terms of people's experience of the COVID 19 pandemic, people have very, very different circumstances that they have to deal with.
One of the things that comes through is that the importance of relationships is now accepted in a much more profound way than I think was the case in the past. And actually, one of the things that we found is that people have become even more motivated to find ways of making those connections, precisely because you can't take them for granted anymore. Here, (at the University of Sussex) of course, we've got thousands of students. They have also told me that they've seen that amongst themselves, they are checking in on each other and forging connections with each other, actually displaying innumerable acts of kindness on a regular basis, in ways that weren't happening before. I think it's because, like I said, we are giving importance to our relationships, and our well-being in a way that maybe was cast aside and has been not so important. There are other things to be worrying about in the past. So yeah, I think that's an interesting feature of what's happening."
I went to delve a little deeper into his thoughts on the patterns shown in human connection and our need for it.
"I wonder whether we've kind of been pulling ourselves away from each other consistently, whether that's through social media, whether that's through using the self scanner at the supermarket, where we don't see anybody and say even a good morning, or making it so that we get deliveries and we don't have to go out and see anybody. We have been making ourselves more and more insular through choice, then suddenly, that choice has been taken away from us. We're like, oh, no, we really miss that. Actually, that human connection, we now realise how important it is?"
"You know, the point you were making about the deliveries or the self-service checkout, I feel like in the context of the pandemic, those small encounters that we have with anybody else who happens to be around at the self service checkout, or when someone is just delivering a parcel, actually, those encounters become really significant. In the past, they would have been insignificant encounters that no one would even give any thought to. And now those might be literally the only people you see. So they matter. And I guess that's what it comes down to. Right. We're saying that people matter, and connections with people matter."