Undercover Kindness Mission: Positively Complimentary

“Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” – Everybody is Free to Wear Sunscreen, Baz Luhrman

Imagine you are sitting down with your boss for a performance review. They describe one of your positive thing you have brought to the job and then point out one area of your work that isn’t up to standard. Which piece of feedback will you be focusing on for the rest of the day? If you’re like most people, it will be the negative one.

On average, we speak about 16000 words every day. But when it comes to remembering words that were spoken to us (or that we speak to ourselves), we tend to remember the negative, critical words so much more easily than positive, kind ones. Why is this? Apparently its all down to the ‘negativity bias’ of the brain. Our minds are wired to hold onto negative information so if we want to maintain a positive outlook we need at least double the amount of positive words to counteract any negative ones. *

With that in mind, today’s undercover kindness mission** was to spread positive words all over the city of Sydney, whether spoken, written with pens and paper or scrawled in chalk on the pavement. Here’s a little bit of what happened:

Welcome to Sydney (cruise ship, Circular Quay)

The only person that can make you happy is YOU (The Rocks)

 Thankyou! Best coffee in Sydney (Bacino, North Sydney – for Sydneysiders that love their coffee and haven’t been here, do yourself a kindness and get the cappuccino with real chocolate on top! Pure deliciousness.)

I hope your day was full of positive thoughts and kind words. And if it wasn’t, you know what your mission is for tomorrow…

*If you would like to read more about the power of positive words, check this out: http://www.peggybert.com/2010/09/30/positive-and-negative-words/

**There is less than three months left before the Year of Kindness comes to an end (eek), and I am planning some of the biggest kindness missions yet. If you are in Sydney and would like to get involved in a group undercover kindness mission, or have any ideas/suggestions, check out the YOK Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Kindness-Army-aka-Year-of-Kindness/272045112862710.

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Choice vs. Obligation: Intention is Everything

What’s the difference between being a yes-person and being a kind person? I was faced with this tricky question recently. Afer pondering it for a little while, I came to the conclusion that it is all about intention. As I have talked about before, I am a recovering people-pleaser. I used to constantly say yes when I really wanted to say no. I would feel obligated to do whatever would make the other person/people happy, no matter how miserable and resentful it might make me feel. And in my experience doing something for someone else when you don’t want to almost always makes you miserable.

Have you ever said yes to a party invitation when you really desperately just wanted to veg out on the couch? How much did you enjoy that party? And how much did you add to the party for the host and other guests? My guess is not much on both counts. So it wasn’t a kindness to the other party-goers and it certainly wasn’t a kindness to you. Saying yes to everything and anything is just not healthy.

So how could a year of kindness (essentially consciously trying to make someone else happy each and every day) actually be good for a chronic yes-person? Because for me it meant that giving is no longer an obligation, it is a choice. A choice that I make over again each day. I decide to look out for opportunities to be kind, and then if I am sure it will be no skin off my nose, and that I expect nothing from the recipient, I take the opportunity. If it feels like an obligation or a chore, I simply don’t do it. If I have a day when I feel so overstretched that I don’t have anything left to give, I decide to take it easy and be kind to myself instead.

After starting this project I quickly realised that if I’m feeling obligated to be kind then I am far more likely to take it personally if the recipient of my kindness is ungrateful or unappreciative. Giving with a negative intention (because you feel you “should”, to get something out of it, to make someone think better of you) is not really a kindness to anyone. Because eventually you will feel so resentful you’ll explode, or you will burn out, or you will simply forget that you actually have any wants or needs of your own. And all of these scenarios will actually prevent you from giving fully to others.

So the next time you are about to say “yes” to something, please stop
and ask yourself, is it because you feel obligated or can you genuinely say is it an easy and happy choice?

The Power of a Post-It


One of my favourite children’s books is When I’m Feeling Sad by Tracey Maroney. There is a line in the book that describes sadness as something which makes the whole world seem grey and dull and droopy. A perfect explanation of how our mind can shape our reality. And a perfect description of how things looked to me (and probably many others) on September 11th. I didn’t want things to look grey on that day – I wanted to see colour and resilience and joy everywhere. I didn’t want to feel sad, either – I wanted to feel inspired and motivated to perform a beautiful act of kindness on the anniversary of the most unkind act imaginable. But there it was: everywhere I turned, there were grey buildings, grey faces, grey thoughts. Sometimes the sadness and the greyness is just too big.

And then a few days later I remembered that whatever I wanted to see in the world, I could help to create it. If I wanted to be reminded that we live in a beautiful, colourful, joyful world, the best way was to remind others. So armed with some sparkly pens and pretty post-its, my friend K and I waged a kindness campaign against all the most grey and dreary objects we could find. We put love in phone booths, smiles on tables, positivity at bus stops and happiness on park benches …

We imagined people as they sat down at the table, stepped into the booth to make a phone call or sat down to wait for a bus, each one stopping for a moment as they found a little handwritten note. We knew at least some of them would smile. And suddenly, just like that, the world seemed a lot less grey.

High Five Mission

My lastest kindness mission was the biggest one yet, and definitely the most fun. I called on some Kindness Army Recruits – Agents A, C, J, K and S – and inspired by Improv Everywhere we gave out free high fives to passers by at Central Train Station.

Central is one of Sydney’s busiest train stations and this mission took place during peak hour on a week day in one of the main tunnels leading to the platforms. Five of us stood next to one side of the tunnel holding signs reading: “We want” “To give you” “A high five” “Get ready” and the fifth person gave out the high fives. We all took turns being the high-fiver because this was by far the most fun!

Most of the commuters were coming home from work looking fairly tired and fed up, or just lost in their own little bubble and totally disconnected from everything around them. When they spotted our first sign they looked a bit confused, and then as they read the other signs many of them began to smile, take out their headphones, put away their iphones in preparation for the high five. Some of them even commented “Awesome!” “Wow, that’s great!” There were very few people who refused to give a high five, and out of the hundreds of people that took part, only two asked, “Why are you doing this?” The answer “Just because” seemed to confuse them even more. Not for money or advertising or anything?? Crazy.

I think one of the reasons it was such a successful kindness mission was because rather than approaching people trying to give them something, they read the signs and made the choice to approach us and accept what we were offering. All the Kindness Recruits had huge smiles on our faces throughout the whole mission, and so did most of the high-five recipients. It was quite amazing to experience how such a simple, silly gesture could instantly brighten up so many people’s evenings. The lovely Agent K used her beautiful photography skills to capture some of the best reactions of people:

Thankyou to the awesome Kindness Agents who helped make this mission possible, and to the recipients who jumped on board so joyfully. And to all you other lovely Kindness Recruits, go give someone a high-five “just because”!

Undercover Kindness, Old School Style

In this fast-paced, techno-obsessed age, there is something extra wonderful (and yes, kind) about taking the time to do things the slow way. I have written before about my hippy tendencies, about my vague but persistent urge to embrace the ‘peace and love’ movement. Whenever I am feeling a bit lost, the things that ground me again are getting back to basics – cooking a slow meal, surrounding myself with nature, reading a good book, connecting with others.

So after a couple of weeks of being overwhelmed by “life stuff” and wandering off the kindness path, I decided the way to get back on track was going old school – slowing down and simplifying. I also did around two kindnesses each day to make up for lost time! I spent a day smiling and saying hello to people (always a challenge even to get eye contact). I made brownies for my new housemates. Went for a bushwalk and picked up rubbish. Bought a Big Issue and talked to two homeless people. Helped a lost boy find his father and lost tourists find the train station. I stuck post-its in public bathroom mirrors with comments such as “Hey, good looking! You’re gorgeous – don’t doubt it!” I also sent hand written cards to two of my most beautiful friends. There is something wonderful about recieving mail that is not bills or advertising, especially when you are not expecting it. Knowing someone thought of you and took the time to put pen to paper makes it feel like there is happiness and love tucked inside the envelope amongst every word.

My most fun kindness was an undercover mission to the library armed with my heart post-its, inspired by Kindnessgirl. Many people claim that books will very soon be obsolete with the invention of all the various electronic reading devices. The thought that one day books will go the way of CDs and videotapes is quite horrifying to me – I think there are few greater pleasures in life than curling up with a pre-loved novel on a rainy day. Or sharing a much-loved book with a child. There is something completely irreplacable about the feel and the smell and the very idea of a book and all the promises it has kept and made. A great book has the power to entertain and amuse and inform and inspire – to change your perspective and your life. I read a short story once that said the only people that would truly be able to live forever without becoming bored would be those that love books – there could never be enough time to read them all. For this mission I spent most of my time in the self-help and travel sections, imagining who might be picking up each book and writing notes of encouragement and positivity. For example, on a book about thinking your way slim: “The journey to your best self has already begun. Keep going!” And on a book about Brazil: “Rio Carnevale = the time of your life. Do it!”

I encourage you to take up the library challenge – it costs nothing, it might give someone a very unexpected boost of happiness and really is a lot of fun! Go forth and post-it. I’m off to read my book…

Weekly Mission: Be Kind to Yourself

One of the many unexpected lessons I have learned while doing this project is that no matter who you are and what you have experienced, being kind to yourself is often the most challenging of all kindnesses. We all know it’s not good to take on too much, to feed ourselves an endless loop of negative self-talk, to constantly doubt our own worth and to give without being equally open to recieving. Most importantly, failing to look after ourselves and value ourselves means we are not able to give fully to others. If we feel drained of energy, love, positivity and kindness, it is virtually impossible to give those things to anyone else. Thinking about it this way makes me realise I must start making it more of a priority. Every day I make time for work, gym, socialising and doing one kind deed for someone else, but being kind to myself tends to slip off the to-do pile.

Apart from the hospital visit on Wednesday, my kindnesses this week have been on a smaller scale and this is in some ways a kindness to myself. Although the most most rewarding kindnesses are usually those that require really going out on a limb, they take up a lot of time and energy and its simply not sustainable to keep that up every day. Besides that, sometimes even the smallest kindnesses can be more powerful than you could ever predict, as was the case this week.

On Tuesday I bought coffee for a lady who looked very stressed and frazzled. She was in a big rush to get to work until she heard about the year of kindness, and then seemed to have all day to talk about the importance of being kind to one another! Thursday I baked brownies for a friend who has just had a baby. And on Friday I spoke to the gym instructor to tell her I had really enjoyed her class. I also told her she should not get so down on herself for the tiny mistakes she made, because I wouldn’t have even noticed if she hadn’t kept pointing them out! Just another example of how we can create self-fulfilling prophecies. This morning when I saw her again she revealled that she had actually been thinking of quitting because she felt she wasn’t very good at being an instructor, but after that class she had changed her mind because she realised her her “flaws” were probably mostly in her head. Incredible the power of some positive feedback. I’m so glad she had that realisation, considering she loves the job so much and is actually one of the best instructors.

After all the incredible kindness experiences that took place on July 13th a few of you have requested more missions that we can undertake together. So, each week I will set a different mission – something I will also do myself, of course – and you can choose to join in if you wish. I hope you will continue to share the results of your missions because it is amazing to hear about the little kindness ripples spreading out all over the world!

This week’s mission: Be kind to yourself. Do at least one thing this week that is purely about making you feel happy, calm and worthy of your own kindness. And if you know someone that needs to be kinder to themselves, encourage them to join in this mission too. Go for a walk in the rain, cook your favourite meal, meditate, dance around your living room, buy yourself some flowers, make a list of all the things that are awesome about you. Forgive yourself. Talk to yourself as you would your very best friend. Be happy. You deserve it.

Shock and Awe Kindness (Inspired by Kermit the Frog)

Dear Kindness Recruits,

In preparation for Wednesday’s 100 Days of Kindness mission, I must tell you something. Sometimes being kind is a bit like being green – it’s not always easy and people often give you very strange looks. But this only proves even more just how much the Kindness Revolution is a cause worth fighting for. We live in a crazy, mixed-up world and it’s up to kindness crusaders like us to remind people that it’s not all gloom and doom – that the world is also beautiful and meaningful and kindful. (Yes, sometimes I make up words, just go with it.)

As for me, my shock and awe campaign has already begun. I have upheld my end of the bargain and continued to really challenge myself with this week’s kindnesses. However, I am also discovering that the best, most rewarding kindnesses are not created but found. My advice to you would be to let your instincts guide you to find opportunities for kindness, because they truly are everywhere when you start looking.

On my 94th day of Kindness my mission presented itself at a shopping centre. I noticed a lady sitting on a bench. Not just any lady: possibly the loneliest lady I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just her strange assortment of clothes or half-dyed hair or the fact that she was sitting by herself staring at nothing in particular or the way everyone gave her a wide berth as if she were about to spontaneously combust. It was something in her eyes, something totally defeated and lost and broken. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, or even if she would respond to me when I did speak, but something told me I had to try.

I sat down next to her on the bench and noticed her outlandish shoes. Before I could chicken out I quickly heard myself saying, “Those are very interesting shoes.” There was a long pause, she slowly turned to look at me, obviously taken by surprise, and said, “Yes.” I thought perhaps that was the end of that. I couldn’t think how to go on from there. But then she began to talk. First about how she could only afford that one pair of shoes, then about every other aspect of her life, all of which were equally heartbreaking. I could feel people staring at us, knowing we must have seemed a very odd pairing (me still in my smart clothes from work, and her in the only clothes she owned). That made me annoyed to start with – she’s a human being like everyone else – but then I felt glad they were looking, as it meant I was making a strong point. I gave her advice when she asked for it, but mostly I just listened and tried to make her feel heard and understood. After about an hour the lady seemed to have grown tired of talking and we just sat for a little while. Eventually she turned to me and said, “Thankyou for listening to me. No one has paid any interest in me for such a long time. And just talking to you has made me think that there’s a chance things might turn out all right in the end.” Listening and acknowledging sure is a powerful thing.

On day 95 I faced one of my biggest kindness challenges: giving out flowers. I was viewing it as a major challenge purely from my previous experience – just thinking about that made my stomach turn itself in knots. And so I decided that rather than wait until Wednesday, I would dive right in and do it straight away. But this time I really thought things through to make sure it had every chance of being enjoyable. I recruited my awesome friend A to come along for moral support (and also because if people can see you have a friend who doesn’t think you’re crazy, then they’re less likely to think you’re crazy also.) Instead of handing out one bunch of flowers to one person, I handed out a whole lot of individual flowers to different people, thus taking some of the pressure off. I also generally approached people who were standing still or sitting down (at bus stops or in the park), not those who were walking by in a rush. And finally I tweaked the exact wording of my explanation to ensure that I got the words “free flower” and “kindness project” out in the first twenty seconds before the other person even spoke, because if I didn’t every single person’s instinctive reaction was to say no.

A happy flower recipient!

In the end, out of about twenty people, only three refused the flowers. Strange to think anyone would refuse to accept a little kindness in their life, but I did not take this personally, only thought it was their loss and moved on. It certainly helped to have A by my side reminding me what a positive thing I was doing, regardless of how people reacted. Of those that said yes, some of their responses were quite incredible – as A said, it “warms the cockles” and “brings a tear to the eye”. One lady informed us it was her birthday that day, another said she had been given the exact same flowers from her family during a really happy time and couldn’t describe how meaningful it was to her to recieve one again, and another lady said she was a big believer in random acts of kindness, that it took real bravery to do it for a whole year and that she was sure it would get much easier as I went along.

And it already is. On days 96 and 97 I bought a coffee for people at two new cafes in the middle of peak coffee hour in the centre of the city (so even the barista looked at me like I was Kermit the Frog). And it was only a single little baby butterfly that fluttered around in my stomach – rather than a whole butterfly family – as I explained to the baristas and the businessmen what I was doing and why. What did I care if they thought I was nuts, I don’t even work in the city so I am never going to see them again. And who knows, maybe later it will sink in somehow and they will see for themselves that random kindness is meaningful and important. And on day 98 I bought a sandwich for a homeless man who was not particularly grateful (making it clear he would prefer money instead), and I did not take that personally either. Just like when I was talking to the lonely lady, people stared at us in confusion as we spoke, and once again I was glad for it. If the man didn’t appreciate the kindness, at least people walking by might realise that “normal” people like “us” don’t have to walk by homeless people as if they don’t exist. Finally, somehow, I am starting to detach myself from the outcome of the kindnesses, and simply enjoy the journey, wherever it may lead me. Mission accomplished.

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