networked for kindness

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are six degrees of separation between all people.  Eman Yasser Daraghmi and Shyan-Ming Yuan of Chicao Tung University hypothesized that the degree of separation is shrinking due to online networking.  The scientists incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and found that the average number of separation between two individuals is actually 3.9
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Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me, working on your computer and consistently checking various social networks, then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.  Chances are high that you’re interacting with your Internet connections more than your geographical neighbors.

Social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography.  For the first time, we can choose our friends based on interests and similarities rather than proximity.  If you’re one of the millions of city dwellers living in a community without a connection to your neighbors, then you might even feel more comfortable interacting with your online social networks than your next-door-neighbors.

The geographical distance between the people that we share our daily lives with is expanding, and that means we need to re-evaluate our definition of neighbor and community.
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Small towns are famous for their hospitality.  The kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again.  Chances are high that the person you smirk at in the grocery store will become your new co-worker or, worse, future boss.

The density of the city almost guarantees that we interact with new people on a daily basis.  But exercise caution: chances are high that you’ve interacted with these ‘strangers’ on digital networks in the past.  Chances are even higher perhaps, that you will interact with them in the future.

And so, what is the proper course of action for these strangers that we encounter in our urban communities?  Kindness.  Be kinder than necessary to everyone that you meet at the market, the café, the park and the bus stop.  You may not meet again in the exact same space, but chances are high that you will reconnect in a digital sphere. Image
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2 dollars for 1 smile

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What could be more wonderful than stumbling upon friendship?  I studied abroad in Rome my junior year of college, and oops, silly me, I didn’t take an Italian language class before I moved there.  Typical American girl just got too excited about streets of gold, palaces of art, and endless gelato.  Best decision ever.

The school arranged for a representative to meet me at the airport and take me to my apartment.  Luckily, that representative forgot to show up, and I ended up walking to-and-fro in the Fiucimo Airport wondering how to get a cab.  I made a few inquiries, and within a couple minutes, I was swarmed with people claiming to be taxi drivers and promising the lowest price in Rome.

And then!

Like a dream come true, a pretty brunette grabbed my hand and asked if I was American.  I nodded my head yes, and she told me to come with her.   I followed her through the airport, and she explained about the importance of only using certified cab services, avoiding people without uniform, and always knowing the appropriate price beforehand.

We shared a cab to the university, and the 30 minute drive was filled with more jokes than a comedy show at Second City.  The two of us decided to meet up again the following weekend in Dublin.  Three weeks later we  found ourselves in Prague, six months later in Berlin, two years later in Chicago, and five years later (as in this past weekend) in Minneapolis.

Dear Clare, you’re the greatest friend in the world, and I’m so grateful that you came to visit.  I was going to post about making you a handmade Thank You card, but I just ended up writing all about you (couldn’t help myself).  Your card is included at the bottom of this post.  LOVE YOU.

Clare and Jen circa 2008:
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At my 2013 wedding:
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I made Clare’s thank you card by making sketches on paper, uploading the drawings onto my computer, and then arranging them into fun designs:
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woo hoo for you

birthdaycake 

The US Census estimates the world population at 7,113,000,000.  In terms of birthdays, 19 ½ million people are entitled to blow out candles and eat cake every single day of the year.

With millions&millions of birthdays being celebrated each day, it might seem silly to focus too much on the annual celebration.   When you think about birthdays as an opportunity to celebrate a unique individual, however, it seems like much, much bigger deal.  If that quirky person is your BFF or your sweetheart, you may even want to organize a street parade or a block party.

The people we love bring something unique to our lives, and for one day, we have the opportunity to celebrate how special they are.  It’s so simple and happy, really: a birthday is a reminder to celebrate the unique qualities that each of us bring to the world.  Think about what makes your friends and family special, put on a party hat, and make a toast to their individuality.

I’m having a birthday this week, and kind letters from friends and family have already arrived to make me smile.  Their sweet notes have inspired me to research creative HBD cards.  I zoomed around the web, and this is what I found:

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Quite a variety of ways to a say HBD, right?  Everything from your standard birthday card to a pinata in the mail to a cookie greeting card.  Which card would you most like to receive?

fan mail

fan mail

Disney Fact: In 1933, Mickey Mouse received 800,000 pieces of fan mail–more than any other star in Hollywood.  The first letter I ever wrote was to Santa, letting him know that I wanted all the Nancy Drew books and a Skip-It.  After making my Christmas wishes clear, the second letter I sent was to Melissa Joan Heart.

“Dear Melissa,  Clarissa Explains It All  is the best show on television, and I watch with my sister almost every single day. Unless my brother is watching Ninja Turtles , because they usually come on at the same time.  Luckily he is usually busy playing outside because we only have one TV.  Anyway, I wish I had a friend like Sam that crawled into my bedroom whenever he wanted.  I have to share a room, so you’re doing pretty well for yourself.  Anyway, I think we’d be friends, and hopefully we can meet someday. XO, Jen.”

After that initial letter went out, I received an autographed postcard from Clarissa thanking me for watching the show.  I pinned the postcard on my wall, and then I wrote to Kelly (Saved by the Bell), Alex (Mysterious World of Alex Mack) and Ashley (All That).   Time to grow my list of signatures from famous celebs (aka, best friends).

I’m a huge fan of fan mail.  The concept is just so great — take a moment to share generous thoughts and send kind words.  I got behind the movement when I was 9, and I’m still practicing the trade at 26 (that’s like.. let’s see.. 17 years of fan mail  from yours truly.)

Anyway! This whole post is really just a plea for my readers to let someone know that you appreciate their work.  The web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, so no excuses.  Jot down a couple people who inspire you (designers, photographers, writers, fashion icons, comedians, teachers, etc) and then send them a piece of fan mail.

For example, I’m a huge fan of designer/illustrator Shannon Kirsten.  She has no idea that I scope out her Etsy shop when I’m bored, or that I pin almost all of her designs.  I’m ending all that today with this fan mail addressed express from me to her.

targeted kindness with babycakes

ImageWhen was the last time that you were overwhelmed with kindness?  It’s happened to me a number of times, but more often than not, it’s the goodness of a loved one that inspires me.  Today, however, I was almost brought to tears by the generosity of a stranger.

Samantha recently opened an Etsy shop to sell gifts that she makes by hand with the help of her family.  She read about my random acts of happiness on the blog, and she wrote a letter asking if her Etsy shop could support the project.   I said yes, of course, and waited to see how the collaboration would evolve.  A couple days later, Samantha sent me half-a-dozen baby outfits designed to look like cupcakes.  She included the sweetest note:
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Despite the title of the random acts of happiness, I decided to go a little targeted with this donation by giving the gifts to women in need.  I feel like this is a new rule of thumb:  commit random acts of happiness unless targeted happiness will provide a greater good.  In this case, I knew that the Minneapolis nonprofit Birthright would be grateful for the thoughtful gifts.  Image
Minneapolis Birthright provides one-on-one counseling for pregnant and expecting mothers.  The nonprofit works with single, married, divorced and widowed women to dispense quality information regarding medical care, financial assistance, and childcare.

I spoke with a Birthright representative, and she told me that volunteers usually go yard-sale shopping to find baby items for expecting and new mothers.  She commented that “it is very rare, if ever, that Birthright children own something brand new. “

And so, I decided to break the cycle of giving Birthright women secondhand apparel.  I brought Samantha’s customized gifts to the center, and I told the volunteers to provide them to the women most in need.
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ImageImageImageImageImageImageDear readers, if you want to make someone else happy, try an act of targeted happiness.  Families in need are a great place to start, and a simple Google search with “donations + ‘your area code’” will display a variety of places that would be grateful for your donation.

And, finally, if you’re thinking of donating baby goods, why not start with something from Samantha? You can check out her Etsy shop KaeLilyBoutique, and show her just how quickly good karma comes back around.    And remember:
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a kind heart behind the camera

Imagethe only thing better than making people smile is capturing that happiness in a photograph.  photographs have this wonderful ability to express emotions and convey ideas that are often impossible with words – essentially letting the photographer express the unspeakable.

i went to cinque terre with a dear friend, emily, a few years ago, and i kept asking strangers to take pictures of us together.  i wanted to document the memory and have images to review when i felt compelled to ‘remember the time.’
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emily happily agreed, and she smiled at tourist destinations until my collection of images grew large enough to fill an album.  never once did emily ask someone to take a picture of her, and when i inquired why, she explained that she liked being behind the camera – capturing other people in moments that she could look back on.  she was more interested in documenting the sincerity, genuineness, and spontaneity that characterizes the candid, private photographs.

at the time, her response only prompted me to grab her camera and see what gems her sneakiness had produced.  since then, however, i’ve continually reflected upon that moment as being very revealing of her selflessness.  it takes a kind heart to find the infinite in seemingly ordinary, every day activity.

luckily for me, my wedding photographer didn’t ever get very far from away from her:
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celebrate others and increase your joy

happiness is on my mind with the interactions taking place in the rah rah rah series (random acts of happiness).  today i took a second to write down my 13 happiest moments in 2013, and they ordered something like this:

  • my wedding day
  • a friend telling me she’s in love
  • another friend telling me she’s in love
  • a friend telling me she’s pregnant
  • another friend telling me she’s pregnant
  • my sister winning a house lottery (!)
  • moving to minneapolis
  • a friend getting a job offer that she’s been wanting for a while
  • a friend dropping everything and traveling solo to south america because it’s been on her bucket list for soo long
  • jon’s parents giddy excitement as they planned their trip to the baltic sea
  • jon’s parents excitement when they announced their retirement
  • my brother-in-law’s college graduation
  • my bachelorette party in austin
  • my honeymoon trip to isla mujeres
  • visiting good friends in new york city

the list suggests that some of my happiness comes from personal milestones, but a great deal of it comes from celebrating the achievements of friends and family. does it follow that we can be happier simply by celebrating the good fortune of others?  the answer seems to make sense– if the people around us are flourishing and happy, then their joy is capable of increasing our own.  per usual, i grabbed my camera and headed to the streets of minneapolis to test my theory.  i approached strangers and asked them to talk about the last time they were happy for someone else:0
the first man i approached was more enlightened than the buddha himself.  he looked at me like i was nuts, and he told me that he’s always happy for others. always? always.  he said that he’s happy because he has 4 grandchildren — ages 8, 9, 15, and 17 — and all of them are healthy and loved.  he said that being around his grandchildren is enough to make him happy for all of his days.  i scribbled down his words, and then he gazed up at the sun and reflected for a bit.  after, he told me that he’s also very happy that the people of minneapolis have such wonderful lakes and sunny skies.

while the rest of the responses weren’t exactly going to make the buddha smile, they did provide further insights into what’s making the people of minneapolis happy:
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“i’m happy it’s my sister’s birthday, and that we’re together at the lake instead of working.” (girl in blue)
“it’s my birthday!!!” (girl in yellow)
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“i am sophie, and i am happy because my sister just got pregnant. she was trying for a couple years, and it was really tough for her, and then she called from work –even though she wasn’t supposed to be on the phone– and she told me the good news.”
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“i’m happy that my son came home from maryland to visit for a while. he hasn’t been home since 2009, and now i have him here for 2 weeks.” (woman in hat)
“i’m happy my mom’s happy” (man in hat)
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“my sister had a job interview today at the school where our mom works — it would be great if they could work together.”
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“friend of mine just got married – they’re an adorable couple and incredibly happy together.” (guy in sleeveless)
“my sister got engaged” (girl in dress)
“a friend of mine has a coffee-date with a coworker” (guy in polo)
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“a friend got married – or, well, a few did – it’s wedding season!”
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“a friend of ours just had a baby–and so did we!”
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“my brother, joe fessler, just dropped a new album. he was working on the mix for over a year, and it turned out awesome.”
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“my dad just started his own company”
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“my daughter just had a perfect baby.”
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“our son is engaged to the most wonderful woman.”

i set out to make others happy, but i was definitely the lucky one today — it was so. much. fun. listening to all the happy moments that people shared with me.  i loved hearing the enthusiasm  and love with which people spoke about their friends and family (and yes, they were all smiling while they talked — mission accomplished).