February is such a meh month. The memories of December’s magic are about as stale as a piece of leftover fruitcake, the dark winter days feel like they will never end and spring will never arrive. If a mood-boosting tropical vacation is out of the question, what can you do to get out of the winter doldrums?
An internet search or a browse through the self-help section of a public library will reveal a whole host of suggestions. But one that often gets overlooked in the quest for self-care is the mood-boosting effect of random acts of kindness. You may be surprised—and more than a little skeptical—about this this idea. After all, random acts of kindness have become somewhat a cliché. But psychology is noticing the positive value of doing something for others with no ability to be thanked.
The psychology of altruism (yes, this really is a thing!) is being given some serious academic traction, especially because it resonates with how society deals with stress. The science behind altruism helps to explain why people volunteer for good causes, give charitable donations and it even attempts to scientifically explain why some people are just happier and more empathetic than others. Rather than just looking at the big picture of the effects of altruism on society as a whole, psychologists are also examining the ways that small and personal acts of altruism and can benefit both the giver and receiver.
Although the cynical view suggests that altruism is born out of selfishness, that people are ultimately motivated to do things for others by measuring what is in it for them, the optimistic view takes a different path and one that scientists are just beginning to understand. The study of altruism is leading to some surprising “unknowns” about what makes people tick, and random acts of kindness is part of the growing body of research on the science of happiness.
The phrase “random acts of kindness” started out as a phrase coined by California writer Anne Hebert in 1982. She urged the world to practice “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty” as a rebuttal to the phrase “random acts of violence and senseless cruelty.” But the concept has roots far further back than the 1980s. The Jewish concept of mitzvah is based on an act of kindness or goodwill toward others, something that carried over into Christianity. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism also incorporate concepts of doing good works toward others with no expectation of compensation. But it seems that some side effects of modern life are that people seem to be much more unkind to each other than they once were and that people are so conscious of the “rat race” that they are losing their connection with others. Perhaps this is the reason why people respond positively when they hear about others taking the time to be kind, and how the concept random acts of kindness has taken off to become entrenched in the modern psyche. Perhaps it is a modern equivalent of ancient religious concepts that resonate.
A quick internet search will bring up hundreds of ideas for random acts of kindness. But beyond paying for the next person’s beverage at a coffee chain’s drive-thru, or holding the door for someone, there are some ways to incorporate random acts that are gaining momentum and becoming movements in their own right. They incorporate creativity, encourage a sense of community, and are just fun to do.
Imagine walking down a street and coming across a park bench disguised as a crocheted afghan, or seeing a statue wearing hand-knitted socks, or stumbling on a bouquet of knitted flowers blooming in a park. These pieces of pop-up art are part of the world of yarn bombing, loosely defined as 3-D objects being repurposed as alternative graffiti. It started out as a gimmick outside a fabric store as a bit of advertising, then it caught on with knitters who wanted to use up the leftovers from their projects. While some municipalities treat yarn bombing as a menace in the same way as actual spray-painted graffiti, it is generally thought of as a way to inject a bit of humour and pleasantness in urban life. Yarn bombing has taken on practical purposes too; knitters leave scarves around light poles so that people in need can take them. Yarn bombing has also been used as part of political protests. June 11 is now designated as the International Day of Yarn Bombing. Find out more at https://www.daysoftheyear.com/days/yarn-bombing-day/ and see if there is a community of rebel knitters near you.
Take a scrap of neglected land—perhaps in an inner city or a derelict street corner. Get a group of people together, often under the cover of darkness, and stealthily transform that space into a beautiful garden for others to enjoy. This is what guerilla gardening is all about. Alternatively, another action is making “seed bombs” (recipes are available online) to throw like a grenade that will turn into a patch of flowers in an empty patch of ground that could use some brightening up. However, guerilla gardeners have faced opposition by town councils and housing associations that liken it to trespassing and illegal use of public land, to the point of taking such groups to court. If you do want to engage in this activity, it is a good idea to approach your town council to work with them and find out any guidelines and regulations of your area, such as agreeing on which plants would work well in your area (and not to introduce any invasive species by accident). To find out more, see http://www.guerrillagardening.org
Little Free Pantries
You’ve likely heard of Little Free Libraries, but Little Free Pantries are taking the idea of free book boxes and expanding it to ad-hoc food banks. The idea is for people to place non-perishable food and toiletries in an accessible location so that anyone in need can help themselves, no questions asked. The idea is catching on worldwide, but many municipalities place restrictions on distributing food items, such as requiring permits, limiting locations to private property and requiring regular monitoring by health and safety personnel. Still, Little Free Pantries are enabling people to help the less fortunate in a tangible and practical way. Please see the official Facebook page for more information. https://www.facebook.com/littlefreepantry/
Random Notes of Kindness
Imagine looking at the back of a washroom stall door or opening a book from your local public library and finding a hand-written note taped there that seems like it was written just for you and comes at a perfect time. While not a formal, organized movement, people are embracing the true random acts spirit and taking the time to spread some encouragement. The only requirement is that the note needs to be completely random, anonymous and kind. Other than that, it could be as simple or as elaborate as the writer wishes. Whether they are read or thrown away, it does not matter and the writer never knows what happens to the note. The point is that the intention was there to spread some joy. Some people take this idea further and wrap up a small gift to leave in a random location such as a bus shelter.
Painted Rock Swaps
In the same spirit of random notes, people are taking the time to transform ordinary stones into mini works of art. Painted rocks have been around for a long time. Artist Lin Welford wrote a series of successful books on the art of rock painting. But now people are taking that a step further, and leaving these mini masterpieces in parks, on sidewalks and just about anywhere for people to find and keep or hide again. The painted rocks can range from simple doodles or positive words or sayings, to little paintings that would not look out of place on a large canvas. There are many organized rock swap groups around the world, but It’s a great project for families and children to do as well. The only caution is to be mindful of the environment. Use non-toxic paint, use a non-toxic sealant, refrain from using glitter and glued-on materials such as googly-eyes that can come off and be consumed by animals or enter water supplies, and make sure you are not leaving rocks in restricted areas such as wildlife reserves or national parks. Other than that, this is a great way to get creative! If you need some inspiration, go to http://www.linwellford.com or search for the Facebook groups Rock Painters Anonymous and World Wide Rock Swap.
Carla is a Calgary-based writer who would love to give painting or drawing a try; perhaps after she completes her English degree through AU.