don’t sweater it

We tend to focus more on our shortcomings than our strengths.  It seems that almost everyone is seeking to improve X, Y, or Z so that they can accomplish 1, 2, and 3.  This game of improvement is a handmaiden of goal-setting and progress, and it’s important that we play along in order to grow as individuals.  The trick of the game, however, is to consistently consider your strengths and remember to value the abilities that you already possess.

With that said, I present to you my horribly unartistic community chalkboard.  The handwriting is almost embarrassing, but I’m focusing on the idea more than the design.  You with me?

Most my mornings start when Kinzie licks my face left right and center to wake me up.  Sticky and slobbery, I walk her around the neighborhood so she can do her thing.  I put a sticky chalkboard along our route, and I plan to leave daily messages on the board.

I’m hoping to get a little more inventive with my messages each day.  I’m also hoping that someone writes back one day (hint hint).
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networked for kindness

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are six degrees of separation between all people.  Eman Yasser Daraghmi and Shyan-Ming Yuan of Chicao Tung University hypothesized that the degree of separation is shrinking due to online networking.  The scientists incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and found that the average number of separation between two individuals is actually 3.9
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Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me, working on your computer and consistently checking various social networks, then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.  Chances are high that you’re interacting with your Internet connections more than your geographical neighbors.

Social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography.  For the first time, we can choose our friends based on interests and similarities rather than proximity.  If you’re one of the millions of city dwellers living in a community without a connection to your neighbors, then you might even feel more comfortable interacting with your online social networks than your next-door-neighbors.

The geographical distance between the people that we share our daily lives with is expanding, and that means we need to re-evaluate our definition of neighbor and community.
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Small towns are famous for their hospitality.  The kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again.  Chances are high that the person you smirk at in the grocery store will become your new co-worker or, worse, future boss.

The density of the city almost guarantees that we interact with new people on a daily basis.  But exercise caution: chances are high that you’ve interacted with these ‘strangers’ on digital networks in the past.  Chances are even higher perhaps, that you will interact with them in the future.

And so, what is the proper course of action for these strangers that we encounter in our urban communities?  Kindness.  Be kinder than necessary to everyone that you meet at the market, the café, the park and the bus stop.  You may not meet again in the exact same space, but chances are high that you will reconnect in a digital sphere. Image
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busy buying happiness

Jon called around lunch to see how my day was going, and I answered in a rush, “babes, can I call you back? I’m busy buying happiness.” The hubs knows my quirks, so he didn’t ask any questions – just told me he wanted details at dinner.

I try to keep a light tone with most of my rah rah rah posts, but the experiments are usually inspired by a scientific theory on happiness.  My research comes from The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, The Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University, and, of course, the talented community at TED.

A 2011 TED talk by Michael Norton argued that we can buy happiness if we spend money on others.   What’s more, Norton stated that we can increase our own happiness by spending as little as $5 on another person. $5 for happiness? That sounds like a bargain to me.
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I decided to test his theory at one of my favorite places on earth, Forever Yogurt.  A new shop just opened up in south Minneapolis, and so I decided to spend the afternoon buying ice cream for whomever walked in the door.  Well, up to $20.
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A woman entered the ice cream shop a few minutes after I finished a tub of  Angel Food Cake/Pumpkin Pie/Nutella, and I was ready to go.  I creepily watched as she filled her bowl of ice cream, loaded up on toppings, and made her way to the register.  And then, it was my moment – I intercepted her at the register and offered to pay.  I said it would make my day if we should let me buy her ice cream.

The woman looked confused, at first, and then she started beaming, “Stuff like this never happens to me.  Thank you so much.”

Isn’t that what people say when they win the lottery or receive an honorary PhD?  Could the free ice cream really have made her that happy?  It seemed so.
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The second woman I approached walked in smiling, seemed to get happier as she picked out her ice cream, and was just about over the moon when I offered to pay for it.  She didn’t seem surprised at all, just laughed and said she would pay-it-forward by the end of the day.
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The final stranger (they were getting massive bowls of ice cream and $20 only goes so far) was a young girl on her lunch break from the clothing boutique next door.  She said she’d heard about random acts of kindness before, but didn’t think they were common enough to happen to her.  She also said the free ice cream ‘made her day’, and that she was excited to tell her friends about the random act of kindness.
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It appeared to me that the strangers were all happier as a result of the free ice cream, but this project was intended to make me happier, not them.  I choose to buy things for strangers, as opposed to friends or family, because I like the idea that they can’t pay me back.  If I bought my friend a t-shirt, she would bring me a book the next day, and the cycle of giving would never end.  A stranger, however, could only repay me by helping another stranger.  A lovely circle, right?

But anyway, I digress.  Did the project work?  Absolutely, but not like I thought it would.  It’s nice to see people get excited, but that alone doesn’t increase my happiness.  What did make me happy, however, was the feeling that I had spent my time wisely.  If I did nothing else today, I had made 3 people smile, and, hopefully, inspired them to feel more compassion for strangers.  I had devoted $20 and 2 hours toward promoting kindness, and that, dear readers, did make me very happy indeed.

graffiti mural in downtown minneapolis

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Graffiti art has been on my bucket list for a while, so I decided to make an abstract mural with permanent marker on my favorite white wall in the city.
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Just kidding!

Did I getcha? 😉

What I actually did today was write letters to strangers on the backside of colorful construction paper, and then turned the notes into paper airplanes.  I placed the colorful planes around the University of Minnesota campus.
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The idea is that a stranger will take the plane out of the tree, and then the letter inside will come be a surprise.  A  discovery, of sorts.  Each letter is unique, and talks vaguely about the importance of taking chances.  When I was in college, I wasn’t entirely sure that studying art history was the greatest choice, but I had faith that the dots would connect down the line.  And you know what? Everything worked out better than I could have imagined.  Nothing at all went according to plan, however.

But still, the message that I wanted to share was simply to be patient, continue to follow your dreams, and don’t be afraid to take a risk.
ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageIsn’t the view of the city from the UofM bridge gorgeous?
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The bridge leads right to the art museum, and so, being me, I wandered into the galleries to see some art:
ImageImageImageImageImageAnd speaking of notes, have you seen the Disney short film The Paperman? It’s a ‘must see’ if you have 90 seconds: 

And just because this post is so quirky, I made you this:
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everybody loves a hero

ImageHow many superheroes can you name in 5 seconds? Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are probably the most popular, but if you ask a true fan like my sister, she can easily delve into subcategories and lesser-known characters until you scream stop.  The popular superheroes tell modern days stories of triumph that resemble the ancient Greek warriors.  Every culture has their superhero because, as Spiderman’s Aunt May says, “Lord knows, kids need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names.”

Superheroes are known for sacrificing a normal life in order to fight evil.  The masked crime-fighters teach us that we can’t save the world and still make it home for supper.  The deeper message here is that fulfilling a personal mission requires sacrifice.  Superheroes are required to deny family, time with friends, and an altogether ‘normal life’ for the chance to save-the-world.

Sacrifice humanizes the superheroes.  We can relate to their longings for worldly goods, and we idolize them for tossing their personal desires aside.  The sacrifice is also what highlights just how dedicated they are to their mission.  There is pain in sacrifice, but there is also the promise that the gain will be with it.

The battle of good vs evil continues today, and opportunities to act on the side of good are all around us.  I’m not suggesting that we pick costumes and superhero names (even thought that might be some fun), but I am asking people to make a conscious effort to act as a force for good.  Think of ways to help others.  Be kind to strangers.  Volunteer your time.

All this superhero talk convinced me to hang masks around St. Paul and Minneapolis as a little reminder to fight for what is good:
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scatter joy around you

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i take pleasure in delaying laundry day as long as possible.  when i was younger, i told my little sister that she could keep one of my outfits if she cleaned them all. in college, i bought new clothes to avoid spending the day battling the coin-operated machines (i also convinced myself that buying new clothes was the same price as washing the dirty stuff). i’ve come to a point in life where i accept that one day a week will be devoted to laundry.  unfortunately, that one day usually looks something like this:Imagemy plans to do whites, colors, towels, delicates, and sheets went down the drain (thankfully) around noon.  i received a sweet letter from my friend dawn — a sort of ‘just because’ note if you will, and it made me smile.  Imagei recognized the sweet card as a simple yet effective way of making someone happy, and so i got out my crayons, paper, stickers, markers, and pins to make some for the neighborhood (my crafts&toys drawer would make any elementary school student want to be my best  friend).ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImagei decided to hang the handmade cards around my neighborhood in the hope that someone i know might find one. i always wonder what the recipients of my RAH RAH RAH projects think about the surprises they find.  i will tell you, dear reader, that some people have raised concerns about whether these projects actually make anyone happier. i’ve gotten a lot of “well how do you know?” and “it’s not sustainable happiness.” fair points, right? i know that i can’t measure the outcome of these projects, but i can tell you that i have faith in the intangible benefits that come out of it.  if one person feels a little more joyful, then i’m OK with all the effort. ImageImageImage

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a friend of mine went to a charity event in chicago last weekend, and someone stole her purse just as she was about to board the train back to minneapolis. bad timing, right? but the worst part of that story is that someone planned to spread pain that day.  like i said before, i don’t have proof that these projects make anyone happier, but i’m committed to scattering joy, not pain, to those around me.