Monthly Archives: January 2012

Bite-Sized Acts of Benevolence

One of the benefits of blogging here – besides the big fun and warm fuzzies – is that I get invited to write about good deeds for other websites and magazines. This is the month we’re all thinking about New Year’s resolutions, so my latest contribution to Best Health magazine’s website is a self-help story about super-easy acts of kindness.

I was inspired by a recent report from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. A clinical psychologist at the centre’s Family Medicine department made the point that New Year’s resolutions often fail because we reach for the moon. We’d be more likely to succeed, said the report, if we focused on small potatoes when we’re planning change.

That’s why I’ve written about teeny-tiny ways to help. They’re easier to stick with, and they can still do heaping amounts of good. As I wrote in the article: “If you’ve determined you’ll run a charity marathon each month or build an orphanage, you’re a lot more likely to scrap your plans by spring.” But when you lower the bar of benevolence, you’ll meet your mark more often.

Is it lazy? No, it’s smart. Set a resolution you can keep, and you’ll change the world. Click here to read the full story.

Big-Hearted for the Birds

Do you enjoy gazing at nature photos? Want to do a good deed just by sitting, looking and clicking? Your valuable skills can be put to good use for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, where a team of clever scientists are working hard at their facility on Sapsucker Woods Road (yes, really). They’re building an online bird identification tool. And they need thousands of volunteers to help “train” the tool by looking at bird pictures and answering questions about what they see.

I’m smitten. I love birds, as any visitor to my office will quickly conclude. It’s adorned with all things ornithological: magnets, calendars, figurines, ornaments, artwork, stained glass. If I can make a difference by staring at photos of feathered folk – not to mention without having to stand up or even put down my steaming cup of coffee – I’m so in.

Answer questions about as many birds as you want, and each time you’ll be rewarded with the name of the species, which of course you’ve been burning to know by this point. You’ll also get a song clip, which you can play as many times as you want. Now I’m dreaming summer dreams.

Bulletin board with bluejay artwork

Detail from my bulletin board. Bird-obsessed? Maybe just a tweet.

I Do… Without Being Asked

What’s the secret to utter wedded bliss? No, it’s not tranquilizers. According to the National Marriage Project, a research initiative at the University of Virginia, it’s doing good deeds for your partner.

We already know that acts of kindness can generate positive feelings for both the giver and the getter. So maybe that’s why those spouses who make their mates’ favourite casseroles, brush the snow off their cars in the morning and text them compliments while they’re at work are laughing all the way to their golden anniversaries. The researchers say that generosity towards each other is one of the top three most important factors in a happy marriage, along with satisfaction in the sack and commitment to the partnership.

Mother Teresa advised: “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” So if you’re consistently remembering to put the toilet seat down while nurturing nothing but the deepest affection for your spouse, I’d say you’re well on your way to a long-lasting, thrilling partnership.

Close-up picture of a wedding bouquet

Ha Long Bay, Hello!

This isn’t something my own personal post-holiday bank balance will permit me to indulge in, but it could be a dream trip for someone who has the cash ($4,300 plus tax) and the time (March 3 to 17). It’s called the Adventure Yoga Retreat and it’s a way of doing a good deed for yourself and for others at the same time.

The “yoga” part is probably self-explanatory. The “adventure” part refers to the fact that you’ll be doing your sun salutations and downward dogs on beautiful Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, home of hundreds of breathtaking limestone islets and caves. Organizer Adam Quang, a yoga, tai chi and meditation instructor in Toronto, chose this location because of the epiphany he himself felt while kayaking at sunset here. In his words, “Suddenly, I feel so alive – as if every sense of my being is expanding… I feel connected to all beings… In this moment I think, ‘This is what I want people to experience!’”

Adam connected with me recently through a mutual friend. He thought his work might be right up my alley – he was right. Adam has founded an initiative called the World Karma Project to encourage acts of kindness, which he believes can prevent wars and eradicate hate. According to his math (I haven’t verified this because big numbers intimidate me), if one person performed one good deed per month, and each of those twelve recipients performed good deeds for twelve more people, then by the time this karmic pandemic has spread eight times, over 5 billion people will have been touched by kindness.

Now because Adam is all about building up your own karma bank, part of the money you pay to go on his Ha Long Bay retreat will send a Vietnamese child to school for a year. Another portion will be donated to a trust fund for the family of a Toronto woman who was killed in a cycling accident. It’s the first time Adam has put together a retreat like this, so if you want to get in on the Ashtanga action, click here to learn more.

Namaste!

Photo of kayakers at sunset on Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The Gift of (Fake) Sunshine

I was only half-listening to a trailer for the evening news when the words “indoor beach” leaped out at me. In fact, they practically slapped me across my very pale cheeks. It was only November, and my family was already desperately deprived of hot, bright, peel-your-skin-off summer sunshine.

For my husband Ian, the winters are extra harsh because his wheelchair doesn’t do snow and ice well. During these months it’s rare that he feels more than a few seconds of sun on his face. And as far as sandy beach goes, it’s been rather a while. We took vacations together years ago, but the consequences of aging with a disability mean Ian no longer travels or even drives out of town.

That’s why “indoor beach” caught my attention. What could be more suited to someone who isn’t as mobile as he used to be, yet enjoys solar radiation as much as anyone? I checked out the story online, discovered the beach was recently installed by a Toronto retirement centre called The Briton House and read that it’s only the second place in North America to do so.

What a treat it would be, I thought, for my husband to relax in fake sunshine for an hour, to the sounds of fake surf and seabirds, while lolling in front of a fake beachscape! I endeavoured to find out if there were any plans to offer up beach therapy for public appointments.

Unbeknownst to me, The Briton House was already receiving numerous other e-mails, letters and phone calls from people who wanted their day in the sun. All callers were gently turned down. But when the staff read my note and heard about my husband, they were touched, says family consultant Karen Lantela.

“Although we would only do this on a one-time basis, our team decided we would like to give you the opportunity to give this to your husband as a unique Christmas gift,” she wrote to me. They would charge no money.

Karen describes the good deed as “paying it forward.” We’re incredibly thankful.

That’s how my husband, our daughter and I came to spend an afternoon of our Christmas holidays at the beach. We basked gratefully. See, that’s what you do when someone does you a gracious good turn. You bask. You soak it up. And you drink the free pineapple punch.

Side note: The first day back at school, my kid and her classmates were asked to describe the most noteworthy thing they did on their holidays. My daughter volunteered that she went to an indoor beach. Where? She haltingly mentioned it was at a retirement home: Everyone in the room laughed. Was there water? Well, no, she admitted. More laughter. “But,” she added, “there were wave… um… sounds.”

Hilarity ensued.

A pair of bare feet in the beach sand.

The sand is definitely real.

The Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had

You’ve heard of radar and gaydar. Ever hear of aid-ar? That’s the word I’ve just coined for picking up on the altruistic tendencies of others. And the good news is, you all have it.

We already know that certain people are more primed to help than others. They’re more sympathetic, more likely to lend a hand when they see someone in a sticky spot. But what’s more remarkable is that, according to new research, all of us have the ability to detect this level of compassion and trustworthiness in total strangers. And we can do it in just 20 seconds.

In the study, participants watched videos of men and women doing nothing but sitting and listening as their partners described an experience in which they suffered. Within 20 seconds, the observers could pinpoint who had the “empathy gene.” It’s called GG, and it’s a variation of the receptor for oxytocin, that hormone that makes us want to go forth and cuddle.

So how does aid-ar work? It seems observers in the study were picking up on subtle behaviours like nodding and eye contact that can make a listener seem compassionate. And DNA testing proved that those listeners who were called out as empathetic were more likely to have the GG genotype.

Try it yourself: Watch five video clips here, and pick out the people you think have the most empathy. Then get the answers here. (I did, and I’m proud to say my aid-ar is in good working condition.)

Study author Aleksandr Kogan – who happens to be doing his postdoctoral studies at my dear alma mater, University of Toronto at Mississauga – says that these results don’t mean anyone with a different genotype is a nasty SOB. Other genetic and non-genetic factors can influence someone’s odds of acting with compassion.

But it’s still neat to know that we can quickly tell who’s more inclined to be kind. I wonder what other superpowers we possess without realizing it?

Get By With a Little Help

There’s a lot of research out there demonstrating why we get a kick out of helping others. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ve heard all about it: It’s good for your physical and mental health, it lengthens your life span, yada, yada, yada.

But honestly, don’t you also enjoy having good deeds done unto you? Isn’t it rather pleasing when another person shovels your snow, sends you a client referral, brings you cake?

Mike Myatt, executive coach, gives some great tips for attracting help from other people in his Forbes column about the myth of the self-made man. He claims that no one succeeds without the support of others. (Side note to Mike: Come on, self-made women can be just as nonexistent as self-made men. Equal opportunity.)

Mike’s focus is on success in business. But his tips for drawing good deeds from others can work whether or not you’re on the job. They may be simple (“don’t be a jerk” tops the list), but they’re worth reiterating. Click here to read the full article.

Bottom line: It’s lovely to lend a hand to others, but it’s also a gas to have a hand held out to you. Either way, “don’t be a jerk” is just plain good advice.