Monthly Archives: March 2013

Gratitude Goes Far

Don’t ever doubt a simple “thank you” has power. An associate professor at Harvard Business School has published a brand-new book about influences on human behaviour and decision-making. In it, Francesca Gino shares insights from her experiments with gratitude.

Francesca and her colleagues asked students to provide suggestions, by email, to a so-called fellow pupil (he was phony, of course) who wanted help polishing his job application letter. Half the group who helped got a rather neutral response: “I received your feedback on my cover letter.” The rest got actual acknowledgement. “I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful.” (If you ask me, the exclamation mark really ratchets up the appreciation factor.)

No shock here. The students who were thanked were more than twice as likely to feel better about themselves after providing the help. Furthermore, they were also twice as likely to agree to assist the next fake student applying for a fake job.

Gino calls this the “gratitude effect” and says she was surprised by these research results. But I’m not… are you?

P.S. Thank you for reading this! I am so very grateful.

Gentle Into That Good Night

I lost a longtime friend on Friday night. I hadn’t spoken with him in a couple of months. And I hadn’t seen him in longer than that – probably it was that time our families bumped into each other at the mall or the hardware store, and we all pounced on each other with hugs and kisses and promises, yet again, to get together for dinner soon.

This is the week that I regret we never cemented those plans.

We all have people in our past who meant something, who, for better or for worse, helped shaped the person we became. Ray Cohen was my first full-time boss after university. Come to think of it, he was my only full-time boss, since, after working with him for 13 years, I left to expand my own business.

For a very long time, Ray was in my life on a day-to-day basis. We went to each other’s weddings, we cheered each other’s milestones. He knew all my bad habits, I knew his. He appreciated my strengths and I truly appreciated his.

As I often remind people, we are none of us girl guides. Like any pair of colleagues, Ray and I didn’t see eye to eye on all work issues. But we were simpatico when it came to the things that mattered more: friendships, family, laughter. He had a sharp and wicked sense of humour. He was a warm hugger. He was the pal you wanted by your side in times of crisis, because he always came through.

And since this blog is about good deeds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about one of the biggest things he ever did. Ray established the Canadian Abilities Foundation and started Abilities magazine, a publication that connected people with disabilities nationwide and linked them to information, long before there was Internet. He did this because he saw a need. He met young people with disabilities who came of age and saw their childhood services and supports fall away. Ray knew that in order to be empowered as adults with disabilities, they needed access to advice and ideas.

Ray sacrificed a secure job, moved to a new province, to try and fill the gap that he’d identified. Not only did he publish a magazine for many years, but he ultimately oversaw production of a number of disability-themed directories and online resources.

He was truly passionate about his work, so much so that the lines were constantly blurred between colleagues and friends, between after-hours meetings and social life. I know he made a difference to a whole lot of people. And that’s the legacy he leaves behind.

This week, I’m extremely sad that he’s suddenly gone. I’m sorry that we never did do that dinner date. Within 24 hours of leaving the shiva for Ray, I’d cemented plans to get together with another longtime pal and her family.

It’s not the only way to honour an old friend, but it’s a good one.

“Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye.”

“Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye.”

Swindler’s List, Part Two

On Tuesday, I wrote about handing over cash or goods even as you suspect you’re being conned. A lively discussed ensued. In the end we all seemed to agree that sometimes, hoax or not, you just help.

So let me ask you this: Do you still do the good deed when it puts your personal safety at risk? I don’t necessarily mean those moments when you’re fueled by adrenalin, like hauling a stranger out of a burning car. But what about those shady dealings when you not only are fairly sure you’ll never see your money again, but could also be harmed as you lend a hand?

Last weekend, hubby went downtown for a haircut. As many of you know, the man in my life happens to be quadriplegic. It doesn’t stop him from committing acts of kindness. But it does mean he considers the danger of a situation perhaps a little more speculatively than someone with full power in his biceps.

As Ian wheeled to his parked van after his barbershop appointment (house rule: I am prohibited from referring to it as “the hairdresser”) a raggedy man approached him. And proceeded to greet him like an old friend. “How’re you doing? I haven’t seen you for ages! Remember me from the Greek restaurant? What do you mean, which Greek restaurant? You know, the one by the bus station!” and so forth. Then the guy got to the point. He hadn’t eaten all day. He was in need of a spot of cash – twenty dollars would surely do it – and, of course, he’d pay my hubby back.

Problem is, if my husband pulls out his bills, he can’t stop someone, not even a skinny guy weak with hunger, from snatching all his money. He can’t chase a thief down the street. Once he deploys the automatic ramp to his wheelchair van, he can’t prevent someone from following him inside the vehicle. He can’t jump in ahead, lock the doors and drive away. All these thoughts go through his mind when he’s pestered by a persistent stranger.

Unwilling to take out his cash on the sidewalk, my husband made a quick decision. “I’ll come back,” he promised, and entered a nearby convenience store. There, he picked out what he hoped was a suitable lunch – the guy was missing teeth, so Ian thoughtfully chose a soft chicken wrap over a crusty sandwich – and asked the clerk to put the change from his twenty into the bag. He came out and handed it over.

The guy wasn’t exactly turning cartwheels over the free food, but he didn’t turn it down either. Especially after Ian told him there was money in there, too. He thanked him and walked away, slowly, down the street. From the corner Ian watched for a moment, saw the man peer into the bag, hoped he wouldn’t take out the lunch and toss it. But then he turned away, figuring he ought to give the man his dignity.

A sensible solution to a potentially unsafe situation, don’t you think? Have you ever taken risks to be generous?

More than just good looks… that’s my hubby.

More than just good looks… that’s my hubby.

Swindler’s List

Certain good deeds are a no-brainer. Letting someone know they dropped a glove? Naturally. Opening the door for an old lady? Don’t even have to think about it. But some situations are trickier, like when doing a good turn could compromise your personal safety. Or when you suspect you’re being conned.

Last summer, a little girl went door-to-door on our street selling “chocolates.” I’m compelled to use the quoties around that word because the chocolate in question probably never existed. Yet the girl couldn’t have been more than eight years old, was precocious as anything – she brightly told me her sister had the same name as me, and chirped about the new school she’d be starting in September – and was cute as a button. She had a receipt book with her, the kind you can pick up at any office supply store. And her mom hovered on the sidewalk at a watchful distance, pushing a baby in a stroller.

The girl asked for four dollars in advance, explaining that she’d make a note of my order and return in two weeks with the chocolate. Of course I was suspicious. Especially after the chatty child told me where she lived – clear on the other side of the city.

But she looked up at me with her darling smile and big eyes. (I know, I know, all part of the con.) And I couldn’t resist shelling over a few bucks that I’d never see again.

The way I figure, if this family was so desperate that they’d travelled all the way to our neighbourhood with a receipt book and a story, only to scoop up a measly four dollars per house, then they needed my two toonies more than I did. We handed over the money. She never came back.

For a while, I kept my carbon copy of the receipt on my desk. I don’t know why. It showed my name and address in the little girl’s careful handwriting. I wondered whether the child was in on the scam. Perhaps she truly believed she was selling chocolates, never imagining that her struggling mom had no plans to fill the orders. I worried about the life lessons she might be learning. I worried more about whether she had enough to eat each day.

What would you do if you knew you were being defrauded, but the con artist needed a hand up all the same? Please comment! Coming on Friday: part two on this topic.

A small price to pay for a family in need?

A small price to pay for a family in need?

Eighty-Year-Old Angel

It’s heartbreaking to have a sick child, but here’s a guy who helps ease the pain just a bit. Bob Parry is a longtime volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, in Ottawa. He cuddles and comforts babies and little kids while giving their exhausted parents a break.

I don’t know how exactly many children Bob has of his own. But whatever the number, they’re long grown. Bob, a retired accountant, is eighty. He’s been a hospital volunteer for 18 years, ever since his own grandson was a patient here.

“I feel that sometimes I can drive home and know that, for a short time, I made a difference in that little one’s life,” he told a CBC reporter. We think you’re selling yourself short, Bob; Our guess is, the difference you’ve made to these kids is gonna last.

I don't know who is brightening up whose day more.

I don’t know who is brightening up whose day more.

Marine Moment

What’s more awesome than being in Hawaii in January? How about rescuing a dolphin in distress… while being in Hawaii in January? Underwater camera operator Martina Wing and her colleagues got the opportunity to do just that, while they were on location filming manta rays.

Check out this video report, in which Martina describes what it was like to be approached by an eight-foot bottlenose dolphin who’d become tangled in fishing line and couldn’t move its head properly. She’s convinced it was appealing to her crew for help. It took seven or eight minutes for a slightly nervous diver to cut the line away. Happily, the rescue was completed and the dolphin seemed fine.

“It was such a special situation,” Martina says in the video. “To see a creature ask another creature for help, it was mind-blowing.”

Dolphin rescued, thanks to MacGyver here… or should I say MacDiver?

Dolphin rescued, thanks to MacGyver here… or should I say MacDiver?

A Gift For Froze Toes

Regular readers know that I have generous friends and kindhearted pals. Turns out many of their kids are so brimming with kindness it takes your breath away. Ema (pronounced “Emma”) is the 19-year-old daughter of an old high school chum of mine. (Yes, I’m old enough to have school friends with 19-year-old children; moving on, moving on.) On a freezing-cold night in late January, Ema, a college student in Kingston, Ontario, spotted a disheveled man out on the street wearing a tattered coat, running shoes… and no socks.

The sight shocked her. It also moved her to instant action. “I don’t even think I took a moment to process it all before I was trying to find a bench to take off my boots and give him my socks. Before I knew it, he was gone.”

After that, she says, she couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d seen. You know when you feel like you’ve just got to do something extra to make a difference? Apparently, even 19-year-olds who go to college, work a part-time job and volunteer weekly at a mission for homeless people can feel as though they’re not doing enough. This night, Ema went straight to the dollar store after work and stocked up on the toastiest socks she could find, determined to bring warmth to a few people in need. “I was in tunnel vision mode,” she says. “All the other things going on in my life just went away.”

As she forked over a few of her hard-earned dollars, the cashier remarked cheekily: “Someone must be cold.” Ema fessed up. The socks were for street people. That’s when the man next to her told her she was amazing. (“I laughed so hard,” our modest Ema says. “I wouldn’t consider myself amazing. They’re just socks.”)

Next Ema headed to a main street to hand out her new purchases. “Everyone I saw along the way was extremely thankful,” she says. “Although they were originally asking me for money and smokes, they were blown away when I gave them socks.” You can imagine how rewarding that must have felt. Ema was on her way to catch a bus home when a man stopped her and asked: “How are the socks going?” It was buddy from Dollarama. Since even he looked like he could use a hand up, Ema gifted him one of the last pairs.

“He thanked me a few times, and we went on our separate ways,” Ema recalls. “Then he yelled back at me, ‘You’re amazing, Ema! I’ll never forget this, or you!’”

If there ever was any doubt that she’s made a difference.

“I know there a lot of shelters and groups who do a larger aspect of what I did. I know it didn’t make worlds of difference,” says this sweetie. “But I helped the people I helped for one night at least. It just felt like it was what I had to do.”

And proud mom? My friend admits her daughter is often too humble to talk about the good she’s doing in her community. “There truly are so many wonderful people out there,” she says. “We may simply not know it, because we just don’t know it.” Well said.

My friends make good-hearted kids… they also make good-looking ones. Check out pretty Ema.

My friends make good-hearted kids… they also make good-looking ones. Check out pretty Ema in this awesome selfie.

Young at Heart

We’ve known from previous studies that volunteering in your old age keeps you from keeling over. Now a new study at the University of British Columbia has found that even for teenagers, good deeds are heart-healthy. In the experiment, just over a hundred high school students were split into two groups. One group was assigned to volunteer at an after-school program for younger children, while the other group languished on a waiting list. Ten weeks later, the kids were compared. The do-gooders scored healthier on inflammation, cholesterol levels and BMI measures. The wait-listers did less well, cardiovascularly speaking. Conclusion? Volunteering keeps you young – even if you’re only a kid.

Did He Just Tell Me to Shove It?

With snowy weather comes fresh (if blustery) opportunities to help out fellow homeowners. I know this from experience: More than once this winter I’ve been happily surprised by a big-hearted neighbour making quick work of my driveway with his personal snowplow. And my daughter, when she’s out shovelling, makes a point of clearing a path for the folks next door to us. When you’re Canadian, shovelling snow is an easy way to commit a kindness.

Or maybe sometimes not so easy. Yesterday morning, while out walking, I encountered my elderly neighbour struggling to shovel the heavy, wet chunks of snow blocking his driveway. This particular man, in his 80s, has had hip replacements and heart bypass surgery. That’s not exactly someone you want to see wrestling with a heavy load in cold weather.

I was more than willing to step in. Just one problem: This elderly cardiac patient is also a rather cantankerous fellow. He’s cordial enough when you stop to pet his dog or talk about the weather, but, apparently, don’t try to take his shovel away. “I’m fine,” he said when I offered him a hand. When I gently persisted, he angrily snapped: “I don’t need help! I can do whatever I want.”

I’m no girl scout, so far be it for me to force a senior across the street who doesn’t actually want to go. I left the man to his chore (with crossed fingers). Fickle February snow, you may be the reason my crotchety neighbour lashed out at me, but soon you’ll be vanquished for another year. March couldn’t come soon enough.

Here’s hoping the spring sunshine melts my neighbour’s heart as it does the snow in his driveway.

Here’s hoping the spring sunshine melts my neighbour’s heart as it does the snow in his driveway.