Random Acts of Kindness

163 - Kindness“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” - AESOP

Not such a long time ago, in a toll-booth not so very far away,  a woman in a red Honda full of Christmas presents, about to cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge, paid the toll not only for herself but also for the next six cars.

One after another, the drivers of the next six cars were told they didn’t have to pay, as a lady in a previous car had already paid for them. It turned out the woman in the Honda had earlier read the phrase “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” written on a card stuck on a friend’s fridge, and liked the idea so much she thought she’d give it a go.

Another woman, Judy Foreman, saw the same phrase graffitied on a wall and mentioned it to her husband, Frank. Frank was a teacher and also liked the phrase, putting it on a notice in his classroom to help inspire his pupils. One of the pupil’s parents was a columnist at a local newspaper and after being told about the phrase, decided to use it in a short article in the newspaper.

After reading this article, the writer Anne Herbert was so inspired by the idea she decided to write it on a table mat in a Sausalito restaurant – and, this convoluted and unlikely sounding story is often cited as the origin of the phrase random acts of kindness‘.

Unlike the origin, the idea itself is straightforward – by practicing more kindness to others in our everyday lives, we can help create ‘cycles of kindness’.

We’re probably all familiar with the idea of ‘cycles of violence’, that violence perpetrated on one person by another increases the chance that person too will too go on to commit violence against others. This is considered a factor in both armed conflict and domestic violence, there is a strong desire to ‘get even’, and if not with the one who harmed us, then someone else.

There is plenty of evidence that many other behaviors can be learned and spread the same way, including kindness.

Deliberate kindness seems to be an idea whose time has arrived, with many individuals, families, groups and communities around the world actively trying to be kinder in their everyday lives:

In the Bay Area, the Haswell family have brought together over two hundred volunteers to spread kindness at local events.

Just before Christmas a customer in a Canadian coffee shop brought a coffee for the person behind them in the line, who then went on to do likewise for the person behind then. Amazingly, the next 228 people did the same !

Instead of having a party, Syed Muzamil Hasan Zaidi decided to do 22 random acts of kindness across Islamabad, Pakistan to celebrate his 22nd birthday.

Bob, founder of the Million Acts of Kindness website is currently spending a year cycling around the perimeter of the USA, visiting schools along the route to promote kindness between pupils.

A Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has been set-up, promoting the virtue of being kind, and is now running educational workshops in Colorado schools.

The comedian Danny Wallace wrote a best selling book promoting the concept, and suggesting that people commit to carrying out one random act of kindness every Friday.

And any internet search will find hundreds of people interested in doing more random acts of kindness, or offering suggestions for kind things to do.

If you think this sounds just a bit too soft and fluffy, there is also a lot of serious investigation ongoing into understanding and teaching kindness, amid evidence that experience of kindness has a definite positive effect on public health and pro-social behaviors.

The most interesting and amazing thing is that it boosts not only the person receiving the kindness, but also the person being kind.

Something to think about when you have the option to give way at your next road junction on the way home . . .

“Ask yourself have I been kind today ? Be kind everyday and change your world” – ANNIE LENOX

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]


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Photo by Katerha, via Flickr

10 Ways to be Happier Today

162 - happinessFeeling a little glum lately ?

You’re not alone. The long and cold month of January can be a struggle for a lot of people, once the festive fun of Christmas and the New Year is over, and real life, real work, real problems and real bank balances return.

In addition the further north you are the less daylight you see over the winter months, with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) being a real, but often unacknowledged, problem for up to ten percent of the population.

The depressing effects of the winter are very real in northern climes, not just due to the reduction in sunlight, but also because we tend to get less physical activity and social interaction, due to the poorer weather and darkness. We also often pick this time of year to try and reinvent ourselves with New Year resolutions and promises of healthier lifestyles, which can just put us under further stress !

As I’ve written before, happiness is a hot topic at the moment, as any lunchtime spent browsing in a bookshop will confirm, which is probably as much to do with the current austerity as anything else, but it does open up a conversation about all sorts of interesting things – including community relationships, work-life balance, materialism and consumerism.

If you could do with a few mid-week and mid-winter suggestions to cheer yourself-up then look no further, but remember just reading about how to be happier isn’t actually going to help – if we want to change we’re actually going to have to DO something.

1 – Get a Bit More Exercise

Our modern sedentary lifestyles mean that we spend most of our days just sitting – changing locations from our car, to our desk , to our sofa. There’s plenty of research showing that exercise has a significant positive effect on mood and can help reduce depression. Even short amounts of regular exercise can help, boosting self esteem, shifting our mental focus and encouraging social interaction, with exercise outside also making the most of what little sunlight there is. In addition physical exercise causes your body to release endorphins, which give rise to feelings of well being, pain relief and relaxation.

2 – Brighten Up Your Environment

Our physical surroundings also play a significant role in affecting our mood. Making a change and brightening things-up, or even just a bit of decluttering or cleaning, can have a tremendous positive effect – as it not only reduces visual reminders of things left undone, or still to do, but also helps us begin to exercise more control over our environment, which is an important aspect of our wellbeing. Increasing the amount of light available might also be a good idea, especially if you are prone to SAD, perhaps try a spot of DIY light therapy.

3 – Get Out of the House

When its dark and the weather’s miserable it can be easy to get into the habit of never leaving the house. Make an effort to get out more – to public spaces like cafes, or just to have a short walk around. As well as helping provide a bit more exercise and social contact, regularly changing our environment is shown to have a positive effect on mood, as new visual surroundings stimulate our interest and tend to distract our focus away from ourselves.

4 – Get Organised

Having control over our lives is an important part of our wellbeing, and with increasingly complex and fragmented lifestyles, a sense of disorganisation, chaos, or having too much to do, can all contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Taking small, definite steps to get things more up to date and under control can often bring a sense of satisfaction and progress, and reduce triggers for negative thoughts and concerns, such as thinking about unpaid bills, piles of washing or long lists of things to do. Getting more organised will also help free-up more time to spend doing things you enjoy.

5 – Change Your Thinking

It seems almost silly to suggest one of the ways we can be happier is to just ‘try to be happier’, but it’s actually true. Being more aware of our own mental life, and taking more control to discourage negative streams of thought, is considered an important element in reducing depression. Known as mindfulness, it’s no more than attempting to be more consciously aware of our patterns of thought, and seeking to interrupt, and not dwell on negative concerns or outcomes.

6 – Get More Sleep

As I’ve written before, lack of sleep is well known to have a significant negative effect on our mood. Research has shown that when people are limited to less than six hours of sleep per night they become more stressed, more irritable, more angry, more sad and more mentally exhausted. Our busy modern lifestyles and the ubiquitous presence of screens and entertainment mean sleep is one of the things we often sacrifice . . . If we want to be happier, we should get more sleep !

7 – Let Go of the Bad Stuff

It seems obvious to say it, but being constantly reminded about ‘the bad stuff’ tends to make us miserable. Unfortunately most of the news we see tends to be ‘the bad stuff’ and we can easily become unduly influenced by world events, the state of the economy, crime and political developments we’re unhappy about etc. Of course I’m not advocating we disconnect from the world, but it might not be a bad idea to balance these constant sources of negative news with a few more positive ones. There’s plenty of good stuff happening out there as well, and being a bit more aware of it might help us feel more positive about the world.

8 – Have More Fun

When we feel a bit down it’s easy to loose touch with many of the things that give us pleasure or that we enjoy, like hobbies and social events, and taking steps to reconnect with the things we enjoy can help us have more fun. Even making plans and arranging dates in the diary, for a holiday, trip, cinema visit or meal out, or even just a get together with friends, as something to look forward to, can have a positive effect. You might also want to invest a bit of time in watching, listening to, or reading some comedy – smiling and laughing produce a powerful effect on our mood and sense of wellbeing.

9 – Do Something for Someone Else

If we want to be happy, there’s a balance to be struck between doing things for ourselves and doing things for other people. If we feel we are always working for and trying to please others, then perhaps we need to concentrate on ourselves for a while, but for many of us shifting our focus away from ourselves and our own problems, and doing something to help others will probably be beneficial. Thinking about, and more importantly doing things for, other people provides connection, purpose and control, and also creates a sense of gratitude as we put our own problems into perspective.

10 – Spend More Time with Friends

Studies into improving happiness have looked at a large range of factors and methods, including many of those listed above, but consistently one factor is judged to be more important than any of the others. If we want to be happier, it seems, we should spend more time in the company of people we like.

Photo by JustTakenPics, via Flickr

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What Do You Want for Christmas ?

158 - presentsSpam !

You might not realise it but every single day Next Starfish receives over 100 items of spam – either post comments, emails, fake tweets etc.

Despite my best attempts to automate and improve my spam filtering, processing all this junk communication takes some time to sort through, and no doubt as I go crazy with the delete button, I manage to accidentally overlook and delete one or two proper comments or emails – apologies if I’ve inadvertently nuked one of yours lately !

But this isn’t a post about my battles with the evil forces of spamalot.

It’s a post about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

As you’re all such smart and perceptive people I’m sure you see where I’m going with this somewhat clunky analogy . . . that if we fill our lives with too much junk, we struggle to find the time or energy to enjoy the genuinely good stuff.

This is might be something to ponder as we approach Christmas. A time of peace and good will to all men – perhaps. A time of commercialism, excess and over-consumption – definitely.

It’s also a time of tremendous stress and anxiety for a lot of people. How do you feel if you can’t afford to buy your children any presents this year, especially surrounded by so much advertising ? What do you do if your children’s friends buy them Christmas presents and you can’t afford to buy them gifts back ? What if the neighbours, your colleagues, the boss or your distant relatives insist on buying you a present . . . it’s stressful not being able to reciprocate.

A colleague at work described a scenario he’d encountered where a middle class mother brought gifts for her child to give to their friends, only to discover their friends’ families couldn’t afford to buy gifts in return. Rather than have her child think their friends didn’t like them enough to return gifts, and to avoid causing embarrassment by explaining their friends families were too poor, she secretly bought gifts for her child and pretended they were from their friends.

Clearly this is madness !

Has anyone asked you “What do you want for Christmas ?”, this year ? Did you struggle to come up with a good answer ? Perhaps you have enough ‘stuff’ already ?

The personal finance adviser Martin Lewis argues that “we should all stop buying each other presents”. Not entirely – but only to buy them for close family.

I think I’m broadly on his side, and I think Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper would also agree.

Less really can be more.

If you’re thinking about making a change in your typical Christmas routine, or perhaps your life more generally I recommend you spend half an hour listening to the two TED talks below, and perhaps another half an hour thinking about what they might mean to you personally.

Photo by metaphoricalplatypus via Flickr

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Mandatory Optimism ?

If you haven’t ventured to the links above the banner yet, the WHY NextStarfish and ABOUT NextStarfish might be worth a visit.

On the ABOUT page you’ll find my ten point manifesto – where I try to clarify the ethos for this blog a little more.

One of the points is:

HOPEFUL BUT REALISTIC – cynical pessimism and rose-tinted optimism both lead to denial and inaction

What exactly do I mean ?

Watching or reading the news some days it seems there’s a large section of our society, and probably the world in general, that generally believes ‘everything is pretty rubbish, getting worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it’. Whether they’re discussing the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be pessimistic about things. Perhaps it makes them less vulnerable to disappointment, or perhaps they struggle to visualize positive outcomes, either way the end result can be a belief that it isn’t worth wasting your time trying to change anything.

On the other hand it also seems there’s another, almost as large, section of society that generally believes ‘most things aren’t as bad as ‘they’ make out, and anyway no doubt problems will work themselves out in the future’. Again, whether referring to the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be optimistic about things. Perhaps optimism is comforting, insulating people from hard realities or bleak outlooks, or perhaps they’ve previously been so lucky as to never to face real hardship in life, so find it hard to ever ‘expect the worst’. Again, either way the end result can be a belief that there’s no need for them to act, or at least no need to do very much, or with any urgency.

The first group often describes the second as naive. The second often describes the first as cynical.

But whether you see the glass as being half-empty – with no chance of getting any more, or half-full – with no need to get any more the result is the same . . . there won’t be any more.

Half empty, half full – the truth is there’s room for more in the glass.

I once heard an economist describe both optimism and pessimism as traps !

The trick, he said, was to see things as they really are.

He then went on to explain that no matter how bleak the situation (and for most of us the economic situation was, and still is, pretty bleak) there was always something you could do, some action you could take to improve things. The best way to do this is to understand the current situation, along with what is wrong, and what can be done to improve things, as accurately and realistically as possible – but, and this is vitally important, remain focused on how to improve them, and hopeful that we will succeed.

It was impossible to do anything other than agree.

Read more about the importance of not being pulled too far into optimism or pessimism, and the importance of staying focused and hopeful about our own actions on the Co-Intelligence Institute, or by Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die, or Viktor Frankl’s powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning.


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Photo by via Wikicommons

Bogota’s Mime Police

Yes, you did read the title correctly – Bogota, the capital of Columbia and home to over 8 million people, employs mimes as police.

What ?

Like all good stories it’s best to start at the beginning.

In the early 1990′s Bogota was widely regarded as an incredibly violent city, in 1993 it had a murder rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants, leading to it’s being considered the ‘homicide capital of the world’.

In addition it was rife with corruption – in politics, the police, and almost all sections of society. Columbia and Bogota had plenty of laws prohibiting corruption, it was just that no one paid any attention to them, and the same applied to everything else, from littering and jaywalking, to muggings and murder.

During this time the President of the National University of Columbia was the mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus. Battling his own problems of student riots and demonstrations on campus he vented his frustration on a group of protesters by mooning them in a crowded lecture hall. Afterwards he said “Innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words”.

Although he subsequently lost his job he gained enough popularity to run as an independent to be Mayor of Bogota in 1995 – which he won. His independence meant he was able to put in place a non-political cabinet, without the usual corruption and nepotism, and removed various corrupt individuals and organisations, including sacking almost the entire Transport Police.

Mockus recognized that there were significant differences between what the law said, and what people did, which wouldn’t be fixed simply by creating new laws. He realised that ‘the rules’ governing society were partly due to the regulations and threat of punishment, but mostly due to what people had come to view as normal. Litter was thrown on the streets because it was deemed morally acceptable. People committed crimes because they believed they would not be punished for them.

He was convinced that what was needed was to recreate a culture of good governance and respect for ‘the rules’ and his solution was unusual.

He replaced the Traffic Police with 420 mimes – who followed and shamed jaywalkers and poor drivers by publicly mocking them. Amazingly pedestrian traffic compliance increased from 26% to 75% within 2 months, and traffic fatalities fell by 50% over a longer period.

He didn’t stop there.

He created 7,000 voluntary community security groups to supplement the corrupt Police Force. He introduced a Women’s Night, encouraging men to stay home in the evening, looking after the children and allowing women to go out feeling safer. He dressed-up in a spandex super hero costume to promote litter collection and promoted water conservation by showering in a TV commercial. He also distributed 350,000 cards with a ‘thumbs-up’ on one side and a ‘thumbs-down’ on the other, that people could use to indicate their (peaceful) displeasure at someone else’s actions.

Of course there were a variety of other important reforms, including stricter gun control and licensing laws, anti-violence education and reform of prisons and the police.

Overall he was successful in his two (non-consecutive) terms as Mayor in reducing crime (2007 murder rate was down from 81 to 19 per 100,000 inhabitants), corruption, and increasing clean water and sewerage provision by almost 80%.

In his own words:

“There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders. To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don’t like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved … I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.

The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”


Photo by Scott Clark, via Flickr

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