Rainy Day Smiles

Lots of very simple things become far more complicated when it’s raining. Like getting to work via public transport without being completely saturated (epic fail). Or getting a decent nights sleep without having a leaky ceiling drip on your face (epic, epic fail). But there’s one thing that is surprisingly, much easier in bad weather: being kind. The last few days in Sydney have been ridiculously rainy, windy and cold. Everyone is reluctantly trudging along through it and there is a certain atmosphere of grumpiness and ready-for-summerness, which in a weird way actually brings everyone together.

Yesterday I offered to share my umbrella with someone who was caught in the rain without one. I discovered this is one of those very rare kindnesses that people generally accept with minimum wariness and maximum gratitude. And today, I decided to try my luck with a kindness that usually has very little success in Sydney – smiling at people as they walked past. But the funny thing is, today as we struggled with umbrellas turning inside out and buses sending waves of water splashing onto us, I found that strangers in the rain also laugh and smile together far more than those in the sunshine. Read into that what you will!

This week I also babysat for my lovely friends K and J and bought a coffee for a guy who looked like his eyes might actually pop out of his head at the very idea of it. Once he had recovered, he remarked that he would make sure he was at the coffee shop at the exact same time tomorrow. Nice try! I also did the following things I usually don’t make time for: went to a dance class, said yes to every dessert I was offered (and worked very hard not to feel any guilt about it!), did a yoga/meditation class and spent several hours reading a good book with no interruptions. I didn’t realise how long it had been since I had done many of these things – they seem so little but the happiness they create is pretty big!

And in one of those wonderful twists the universe likes to organise sometimes, this weekend I am invited to a Kindness Conference (who knew there was such a thing?) and the topic is A Time For Renewal: The World Can Only Change From Within. Yes, that’s right, a whole two-days of talks and techniques from professional (and international) kindness crusaders on how and why to be kinder to yourself. So I will definitely report back to you on that one.

I hope you’re all doing well with the kindness to self challenge. And if you’re caught in the rain this week too, remember you can always create your own sunshine just by smiling!

Lessons on Courage from a Mother and a Homeless Man

“Fear cannot take what you do not give it.” ~ Christopher Coan

Fear is something that we all experience, in some form, every single day. Fear of failure, rejection, pain, loss … Just the thought of these worst case scenarios can be completely paralysing. This week on my kindness journey I met two people whose everyday realities would be many people’s worst fear. But rather than giving up or dwelling on the negative they chose to respond with courage and even gratitude.

For my 92nd day of kindness I donated blood. At the blood bank a middle-aged lady sat next to me sitting back with eyes closed, headphones in and a smile on her face. I admired how calm and content she seemed. I don’t have a problem with needles and I feel very positive about donating, but I still don’t enjoy the experience enough to be smiling about it! When the nurse came over to check on the lady, she took out her headphones, breathed deeply and said, “I’m okay as I keep listening to the music.” The nurse enquired what she was listening to and she said it was her son’s favourite band. It helped her to overcome her fear of needles and think instead about her teenage son, who was seriously ill and relied on blood transfusions to stay alive – surely one of the worst fears for any mother. She said she regretted letting her fear stop her from donating before he became ill but a positve side to his illness was that it had given her the determination to help others now.

The nurse nodded knowingly – I suppose she hears those kinds of stories every day. But I certainly don’t. I wanted to tell the lady that she was amazingly courageous. That her story was incredibly touching. That she had just made me really, truly realise how important this all was. But before I could say anything at all she had put her headphones back in, closed her eyes and begun to smile again. And just imagine, for eight minutes of our time and a little bit of discomfort we could all be giving three more people the happiness of knowing their loved one has a second chance at life.

On my 93rd day of kindness I experienced another story of facing fears that will stick with me for a long time to come. I decided it was the day to give away $10 to a stranger. While walking through the city I decided I would smile and say hello to people, and maybe the right person would present themselves. This resulted in having a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman about what he felt were the keys to a happy life: a good attitude and a good night’s sleep. I also said hello to a couple from Florida and offered to take a photo of them in front of the Opera House. They said they thought Sydney was the most beautiful city in the world and the people were “just super dooper friendly”. No arguments here.

Continuing my walk I noticed a homeless man sitting on the footpath, holding a sign simply saying “Please help me”. His head was bent so slow it was almost touching the ground as a constant stream of people rushed by, not a single one acknowledging he was there. I hesitated. Would he accept food rather than money? What could I do to make him feel validated and respected? What could I say to him to find common ground, and not sound condescending? As I approached it was clear it had been a long time since anyone had taken the time to look him in the eye and say hello, and he was beyond grateful when I did.

It turned out I needn’t have worried about what to say, simply demonstrating I was open to conversation was enough. He told me his story from before he lived on the streets – he had lost his job and then been kicked out by his wife. He did not blame his boss or his wife, because he took the job and the marriage for granted and this was the consequence. After I had bought him a sandwich, coffee and newspaper (for around $10) he then told me his terrifying reality – he had to sleep during the day and stay awake during the night for fear of being set on fire, as had already happened to him three times. So it was not possible for him to get a good night’s sleep, but he certainly had an astoundingly positive attitude. He was determined to get his life back, he was saving little by little and told me with a smile, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ I get off the streets, it’s ‘when’.”

Gratitude is the first lesson: to never take for granted when our loved ones are healthy and well, when we live in a place that is safe and beautiful, when we have a job, a home and people that love and support us even when we make mistakes. But beyond this, the second lesson is choice: we cannot stop things falling apart, and most of the time we cannot even stop ourselves fearing that things might fall apart in the future. But we can choose to feel the fear, and keep smiling anyway.

How Do You Measure Happiness?

“The gross national product… measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” ~ Robert Kennnedy, 1968 

Days 24-27: Gross National Product seeks to define the prosperity and quality of life in a nation by assessing the market value of the goods and services it provides. But as we all know, there is far more to living a rich life than economic wealth. With this in mind, in 1972 the 5th King of Bhutan – a small landlocked monarchy in Southern Asia where the average income is around $3 – coined the idea of Gross National Happiness. Its an idea that is slowly gaining popularity around the world. The GNH survey has even been taken by Australians, who on average rate their own happiness level at around 7.9 out of 10 (‘Growth Matters’, Andrew Leigh, 2006). In fact, the recent studies of international happiness have consistently placed Australia in the Top 10 Happiest Countries.

At first I thought perhaps sunshine and warmth had a lot to do with it, but many of the other happiest countries are cold and snowy most of the year. None of the countries are poor, but again the wealth of a nation doesn’t directly correspond to its happiness level. So how exactly do you measure a nation’s happiness? Assessing GNH currently involves a nationwide survey which includes questions such as: Do you consider karma in your daily life? How much do you trust your neighbours? Do you feel you have the right to freedom of speech? How do you dispose of household waste? How often do you experience compassion? They are then asked, “All things considered, how happy are you with your life?”

How would you answer this question? What things contribute to your happiness level?

 

When I asked myself this question, I had to admit the Year of Kindness is certainly making me happy – though little has actually changed in my life, a lot has changed in my perspective of it. This week I babysat for my dear friends H and R (who haven’t been out to dinner since their daughter was born 2 1/2 years ago!), paid a visit to my Grandpa and left him some home made jam drop biscuits, practised listening more and speaking less, and bought my boss a tea cup lid (she is forever re-heating her tea as she never has time to sit down and drink a whole cup). None of these things were at all remarkable or difficult, and yet they made myself and others very happy. I know the age-old saying that the only person that can truly make you happy is yourself, but I have never actually experienced it quite so literally before. I don’t know how you can measure this kind of wealth – maybe in the quantity and quality of smiles? – but simply because it can’t be measured doesn’t take away its significance. 

So today why not forget about financial wealth as the only marker of success and think about how much happiness you have in the bank. Take Bobby Kennedy’s advice and focus on your wit and courage, wisdom and learning, and compassion. You’ll probably find you’re a lot richer than you thought.

Find a Penny

 

Days 20-23: About a year ago my beautiful friend R sent me a care package from America with a penny encased in a little bag and the words “Find a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.” I still have it on my wall. While we don’t have pennies in Austalia anymore, like many Americanisms this saying is well-known here. As with kindness, money is something that everyone would like more of, and finding it is probably considered good luck in any culture. When I found some money this week, it provided a very spontaneous opportunity for discovering whether it is possible to be kind to others while taking full advantage of luck for yourself.

Anzac Day is a public holiday in Australia, a day when we remember all the Australian and New Zealand soldiers that have served and died in war. I decided a simple way to be kind on Anzac Day would be to donate some money to Legacy, an organisation caring for families of deceased war veterans, which I did. However, for many Australians the best way to remember the diggers is having a beer (or ten) in their honour and playing two-up. I’m pretty sure they would approve. Two-up is a traditional game in which you bet on whether two coins (normally pennies, funnily enough) will be flipped heads or tails. My friends and I take part in this crazy ritual every year, and though I never win any money it is a lot of fun. This particular Anzac Day while I was waiting at the bar in a very busy pub, the man beside me dropped some money. I think he was a few beers past remembering his own name, let alone noticing he was $10 short, but I tapped him on the shoulder and returned the money, to his absolute amazement. Perhaps some people would have considered it lucky, or good karma, that they had found the money, and been ‘kind’ to themselves by simply pocketing it since he would never be any the wiser. But make of this what you will: almost immediately afterwards I headed back out to the two-up ring and preceded to win almost three times as much money as I had just returned to the man at the bar. I didn’t even think of it at the time, but later I wondered if I had kept that man’s money for myself, would I have still won?

Over the last few days I also cleaned out my closet and donated a big bag of clothes to St Vincent de Paul (a charity helping people overcome poverty and disadvantage). And I bought a coffee for the lady standing in line behind me, who was appreciative but not overly surprised, as though random acts of kindness made perfect sense within her positive world-perspective. She commented that she would certainly have to pay it forward to someone else, and then finally asked me why I wanted to do something nice (normally the first question people ask, repeatedly.) Before I could answer the barista said: “That’s just what she does. Every single day she is kind.” I don’t know why exactly, but as I walked away with my coffee my smile couldn’t have been much wider.

For the love of coffee

 

Day 2: It’s pretty tough to beat the simple pleasure of a good cup of coffee to kick-start your morning. Except, perhaps, if the coffee is free. When I paid for a guy’s coffee yesterday I think it may have been the highlight not just of his day but maybe even his week. At first he was completely bemused and I had to explain several times what I was doing and why (There is no catch … Yes, I really do want to pay for it … Yes, really…) He then spent a few moments muttering “Wow” to himself, then smiled widely and exclaimed, “Well, I’ve never been to this coffee shop before, but I reckon I might be back every morning from now on!” So it seems it was a kind deed for the barista, too.

Day 3: Today my kind act was volunteering with the Red Cross Young Parent’s Program, which I have been doing for about six weeks now. The kids are absolutely gorgeous, as are my fellow volunteers. I had been thinking about volunteering for a children’s charity for about a year before I finally stopped procrastinating and decided to apply for a few places that looked interesting. Red Cross was the first one I tried and it’s so fulfilling and so much fun I can’t remember why I didn’t start sooner! Having said that, I’d like to try volunteering for a few other charities during this project, but I will probably have to procrastinate for just a little while first…

A Single Step

Day 1: There is a saying that a smile always confuses an approaching frown. On the first day of my kindness journey this adage certainly seems fitting. My task was simple enough: to make a conscious effort to smile and say hello to people. The thing is, in a city like Sydney its a bit of a struggle to get most people just to make eye contact. Even those that do seem very disconcerted when I smile, and positively startled when I attempt a cheery “Good morning!” 

However, the few people that returned my greetings whole-heartedly provided interesting conversations and wonderfully positive energy that I otherwise would have missed out on completely. They included: a lovely girl at the gym (who felt that pilates was the absolute best way to start a Tuesday), a guy at the gym (who I’m fairly sure thought I was hitting on him  because why else would I be saying hello to a stranger at 7am??), the cleaner in our building (who was happy it was raining as it’s good for the plants), a young mother at the supermarket (who informed me the plums were delicious at the moment) and a lady at the bus stop (who pointed out a pair of canoodling cockatoos on the power lines and told me that they use the feathers on their heads to communicate with each other).

Most memorable, though, was the incredibly cheerful bus driver I encountered. To everyone entering the bus exclaimed: “Good morning, how are you today?” and to everyone leaving: “Thankyou! Have a fantastic day!” Most people seemed unsure about how to respond, but as I looked around I could see several passengers smiling to themselves. I noticed as the bus journey went on his greetings became a little less enthusiastic. I understood; its tiring to maintain constant cheeriness without getting much in return. As the bus approached my stop I decided I had to say something to let him know his kindness was appreciated. I thanked him for his positivity, told him it was a really nice way start to the day and I was sure he brightened up more people’s mornings than he realised. He smiled widely and said, “I do try. There’s enough miserable drivers out there, but trust me, there are a few happy ones that pop up every now and again too.” 

Now, given that it was the kindness of a bus driver that somewhat inspired this whole project (see ‘Can kindness be powerful?’), if my experience today isn’t some kind of karmic sign, I don’t know what is.