If all you can do is crawl, start crawling. — Rumi
In other words, do something even if it’s small. These words of wisdom (from the famed poet, not the Beyonce twin) are especially fitting now when the world seems more complex and polarized than ever.
“Small actions can make a huge difference. When you think about what has ‘made your day,’ it’s often small acts of kindness given or received,” says Meg Selig, author of “Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.” “So much research shows that helping others — which some call ‘mitzvah therapy’ — leads to happiness.”
Get started by picking and choosing from this list of 22 “actionable” everyday ideas — crowdsourced from readers, fellow journalists and psychology experts:
1. Before you get into an online war of words, take a breath.
If you are itching to deploy a withering retort to someone on Facebook, think about how you would frame it if the roles were reversed. Are you name-calling and giving in to your worst, knee-jerk instincts? Or are you making thoughtful arguments focused solely on ideas, policies and values? Edit your comment, if necessary, so that you can answer “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second.
“Getting into a war of words with others who don’t share your views hardly ever makes things better,” said Toni Bernhard, who’s written books on living well. “People are deeply attached to their views … so I don’t recommend that you try to talk people out of their opinions. It’s time wasted that could be spent doing something constructive for yourself or others.”
2. Get offline
If disengaging from negative comments doesn’t work, consider limiting your “intake of disturbing news stories and opinion articles,” says Selig.
“Think about what is important to [you] and then go and do that, regardless of the latest social media ‘outrage cycle,'” said Selig. “Too much revolving around [it] could just knock a person off balance.”
Unplugging from technology also gives you a chance to connect with people face to face and better observe nature and the world.
3. Commute kindly.
It’s nobody’s favorite part of the day, but that doesn’t mean you have to cut people off, tailgate or otherwise exhibit road rage. Let people merge. Sing in the car. Don’t push on the subway. Find music or podcasts that invigorate or enlighten you so you can walk into work or home a little happier.
4. Take a CPR/First Aid course.
You could save a life someday. Find a Red Cross class near you. (Visit redcross.org)
5. Tell your spouse, your babe, your buddy you love them.
If you feel it, let them know.
“Expressions of love are a wonderful way to give support,” Selig said. “Sometimes just to know someone else cares helps you feel stronger and more resilient.”
6. Reach out.
If you know a family member, friend or even just an acquaintance is going through a hard time, reach out to them — don’t assume someone else will do it. It’s OK if you don’t know what to say. Just listen. Remember if they’re grieving or have experienced a trauma, they’ll likely receive an immediate outpouring of kindness, only to face a drought months later when their need remains but others think they should be over it. You could even set up a calendar reminder to check in.
7. Give time.
You know how we said “just listen”? That goes for everyday interactions, too. Ask “how are you?” and mean it. Give them time to answer. Go a little bigger: Do “microvolunteering” from the comfort of your couch through HelpFromHome.org or Skills for Change. Go bigger still: Give your time to a food bank, a tutoring program, a community garden. Check out volunteer opportunities through your place of worship, school or community center. As philosopher Simone Weil said: Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
8. Give money.
Set up recurring donations to causes you care about. Make sure they’re legit (i.e. putting your money toward programming) by checking their rating on CharityNavigator, GuideStar or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance guide.
9. Give better gifts.
Unfortunately, “a donation has been made in your name” doesn’t always spark a smile in the recipient — especially a kid! But you can still give stuff and have it at least partly benefit others through sites like Goodshop or Uncommongoods or even simply by choosing retailers committed to good things, like clothing made in America. It’s not just boutique brands that give back, either. Consider L.L. Bean, Patagonia and Toms; Burt’s Bees or Lush; and for toys, B. and Hape lines are sold at Target and other major chains.
10. Give praise.
Praise a co-worker or employee for a job well done. Praise a child for sharing. Praise a stranger for stopping to let you cross the parking lot, even if it’s just with a smile and a nod. It’s pretty simple: When you witness behavior you want to see more of, encourage it.
11. Go ahead, get political.
“You might attend a rally to show support for what you think is right or you might make phone calls to elected representatives about upcoming legislation,” said Bernhard, who also recommended attending city council meetings and writing letters to the editor. “Letting your anger brew until it’s at a boiling point is not a way to create positive change. Act out of compassion and ask yourself what you can do to make things better, one step at a time.”
12. Keep learning.
Passionate about an issue? Learn all about it. Sometimes the best way to help yourself and others (not to mention come up with solutions) is to know what you’re talking about.
“I would suggest choosing one area of life that matters to you — anything from books and libraries to health care to political change,” Selig said. “Learn about it and figure out a way to contribute something positive to that area.”
Free resources and courses are available everywhere from your local library to iTunes U and the Khan Academy.
13. Keep snacks and socks handy.
You don’t have to live in a city to come across people in need. If you don’t want to give cash, non-perishable food, such as breakfast bars, and clean socks, scarves or toothbrushes are always helpful (9-year-old Jahkil Jackson calls them “Blessings Bags.”)
14. Use real silverware instead of plasticware.
Even for parties, even at work. You’ve got ’em. It’s easy. You deserve a medal if you use the metal.
15. Don’t just recycle — freecycle.
Getting rid of an old couch? Old toys? Old clothes? Any and all of it can be posted on Facebook Marketplace, as a Craigslist “curb alert” or on Freecycle so that someone else can make your trash their treasure. You might find something you like while you’re on there and save yourself some cash in the process.
16. Read fiction.
It’ll stretch that empathy muscle, plus offer an escape from the daily grind.
“When you make a deliberate effort to see the world from another’s point of view, you are exercising your empathy muscle,” Selig said. “Connecting to another human being through this kind of compassionate understanding is fulfilling for both people and even healing. A little more empathy could help counter some of the polarization we see today.”
17. Be kind to strangers.
“When you have the impulse to help or be generous, often we talk ourselves out of it,” Bernhard said, noting a lesson learned from popular meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “My rule is that when I feel that initial impulse to help, I have to go ahead and do it. And I’ve never regretted it.”
You never know how it might come back to you.
18. Don’t run the dishwasher until it’s full.
Easy one. And handwash big items like Tupperwear and pots and pans — it’s better for your utility bills and the planet.
19. Help an elderly neighbor.
This could mean anything from bringing in their mail or raking their leaves, to adding their shopping list to yours the next time you get groceries. Or better yet, invite them along. At least eight million adults over age 50 are affected by isolation and loneliness, which can impair mental performance, compromise the immune system and increase the risk of vascular, inflammatory and heart disease. Don’t know any old neighbors? Check out Meals on Wheels or other charities geared toward helping seniors.
20. Take a walk outside — and bring a bag
Numerous studies show the personal mental and physical health benefits of time spent outdoors. And if you bring along a leftover plastic bag from the store to collect discarded bottles and the like, you can make it better for the next person walking in your path.
21. Eat your veggies.
Eating more plants and fewer animals is not just good for your health (including a lower risk of cancer), it’s also good for your budget and the planet.
No, not in the “you’re so much prettier when you smile” way. Not even in the “negative emotions make me uncomfortable” way. No, smile for yourself. Research has shown smiling decreases stress and could even increase lifespan.
“Smiling is one of the fastest and easiest ways to create social connection between people,” American happiness researcher Shawn Achor said. “Research shows social connection is the greatest predictor of long-term levels of happiness.”
Anne Godlasky, USA TODAY