Everything seems wrong. The world feels like one huge scary mess. Forty–three people killed in Beirut while going about their daily lives. One hundred twenty nine people murdered in Jihadist attacks in Paris. Russia announced a terrorist’s bomb brought down their airplane. Two Air France planes were diverted due to bomb threats. Hotel siege in Mali. Enough already. I feel helpless and don’t want to hear any more.
Terrorism, ISIS, radicalizing children – these are too big for me to feel like any sense of power to change. I don’t even understand it. Just as I was contemplating an escapist move to a back woods bomb shelter with lots of chocolate and good books I remembered a conversation I’d had with someone recently. He was talking about the Affordable Care Act. Was it a perfect law? No. A perfect solution? No. But did it move us closer to where we need to be? Did it make things better? Yes. He felt it did. That thought has continued to creep into my mind.
I can’t change the weather patterns, ease global suffering, or stop Trump from talking. I have no power to affect the Packer’s protection of Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. But I can affect my own little corner of the world. What I do can make things better. Small seemingly insignificant changes in the moment can make things better.
Change the emotional energy. In traffic and and generally annoyed? We know moods are contagious. Sitting in the anonymous interior of our cars it’s all too easy to spew vitriol with a facial expression that would scare a marauding army. What if we changed the mood by taking a moment to pleasantly acknowledge the driver who let us merge? Perhaps a little wave? How about smiling at a 4-way intersection and inviting the other driver to go first instead of racing them to take-off? Prefer something higher tech? MotorMood, an invention of Jesse Kramer, is a device which allows you to communicate with other drivers. No, there’s not an option for a visual of your middle finger. It’s a little gadget that illuminates a smiley face. Research shows we react positively to smiling faces, even emoticon faces. A small act that might make someone feel a little better.
Notice people when they’re doing something good. Pause in your busy day to look a clerk in the eye and really acknowledge them. Think it was their dream job to stand on their feet and ring up your groceries?Just the other day I was waiting in line to pay for my artichokes. I don’t know exactly what had gone wrong with the person in front of me but when I came on the scene the customer was angry and belittling to the clerk. The clerk did a masterful job of handling it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done as well because my instinct was to shove my artichokes down the customer’s throat. When I reached the head of the line I told the clerk what a wonderful job she’d done of handling the situation and I empathized with how hard a job it was. She got a little tear in her eye and told me it was the nicest thing anyone had said to her in a long time. What did it cost me? Nothing but it made her feel a little better. And me too.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Boy howdy, this doesn’t come natural to me. The inside of my brain is usually poised for negativity. It’s how we’re wired but I seem to excel at it. Yet all that negativity does not make me feel good and it oozes onto others. Maybe that customer in the store was not a full-time raving asshat. Maybe she was just having a really, really bad day and and her obnoxious behavior was the culmination of all the frustrations. It doesn’t excuse it but it makes me feel better to imagine it was an aberration. I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for my tantrums.
Connect with others in small moments. In spite of social media our world has become increasingly impersonal and disconnected. You don’t have to become everyone’s best friend but acknowledging others is a micro-connection. In his book on improving performance in medicine, Atul Gawande suggests “asking an unscripted question” as a way to make a real connection with a patient. What a great idea. I think women might be better at this in everyday life. “Wow, I love your shoes, where did you get them?” is an acceptable question to ask someone even in a bathroom. Men, don’t try this. I’ve been told there’s very rigid rules for communication in men’s bathrooms. Just stick to business.
Think about what your face is doing. I went to get my haircut the other day and there was a women in the salon whose face was set in such a scowl that I wanted nothing to do with her. Turns out she was actually quite pleasant and was probably blissfully unaware of what her face was doing. When we have a bitchy resting face it’s a force field which repels others. If that’s the look you’re going for then carry on but if you want to feel better and put positive energy out in the world, soften it up. We actually feel better when we aren’t scowling. When we smile our brain gets feedback from our muscles which improves our mood. So it’s good for others and good for us too.
I haven’t read the news yet today and I’ll probably be sorry when I do. Mayhem surely is being plotted as I write. But all around me people are just trying to get by and doing the best they can in every day life. I want to notice them and do what I can where I can to make my little corner of the world better.