31 Days of Kindness

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47192929_2197798976919662_2821843979337728000_oShortly before December, my niece posted a Kindness Calendar on Facebook. Being a big fan of Advent calendars and the whole countdown to Christmas, I decided to give it a try. With traditional Advent calendars, you get something (a chocolate or small toy) each day of December. The Kindness Calendar asks a person to give something every day until Christmas. I printed out the calendar and taped it to my fridge. So began a transformational month that has given so much more meaning to the Christmas season for me.

Each day I have done my best to fulfill the task set for me by the calendar. It might be something simple like purchasing an extra bag of groceries for the local food pantry. It might be nonmaterial: a kind word, a positive note, a mental or emotional adjustment. Some of the activities had disappointing results. When given the task to smile at as many people as possible one day, I was forced to notice that not only do most people not smile back, most people don’t even make eye contact with one another during the course of the day.

Yet as the month has gone by, I have found my heart to be so much more open and expansive. Giving things away, whether physical or emotional, has made me treasure this season of goodwill so much more deeply and personally. After performing my “good deed” for the day, I felt so much happier and less stressed about the many things on my To Do list. The more I recognized others’ needs, the more abundantly blessed I felt.

Christmas is almost here. I’ve got most of the gifts wrapped and the cards sent. Soon all four of my kids will be in the house causing happy mayhem. And this year, I have a peaceful, contented heart with which to receive them.

It’s not surprising to me that the Kindness Calendar was created by an organization called Action for Happiness. Trite as it may sound, using the calendar has reminded me that it really is better to give than to receive. Giving of ourselves comes back to us in double measure.

May all of us experience Christmas joy by performing little acts of kindness on our way to the manger this year.

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Too Much of a Good Thing

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I’m standing in the grocery store aisle pondering the Triscuits. There are so many varieties: reduced fat, hint of salt, cracked pepper, balsamic vinegar and basil, roasted garlic, rosemary and olive oil. The list goes on and on. I have a hard time finding plain old “original” Triscuits. The same is true in every other aisle of the giant supermarket. Every potential variety of a food product is on display for my choosing. It’s just too much.

In America, we are blessed with plenty. The cornucopia we haul out to decorate our table each Thanksgiving is a symbol of the promise our country has held for more than 200 years. We have such a high standard of living here that it’s easy to take things for granted: our highway systems, cars, advanced technology, household conveniences such as washers and dryers, dishwashers and the like. And while by no means are all Americans flush with cash, most of us go to bed with our bellies full each night.

The question is, why are so many people unhappy? I understand the unhappiness of a family living in poverty, having utilities cut off and not knowing how they are going to afford rent this month. In fact, a recent study by Princeton University showed that earning at least $75,000 a year helped raise a person’s day to day happiness. Above that, however, the happiness level did not really go up.

I think many of us have so much that we have come to see it as the norm. Our blessings cease to be noted, and we just assume the right to be a two-car family with a house in the suburbs, new Nike sneaks, and an iPhone for everyone.

I was chatting with my daughter the other day, and I said I had an idea for the title of a book: Ungrateful. It would be about a rich, discontented American. She reminded me that a book has already been written on that subject: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. A novel about the dysfunction of an upper middle class family, its title hints at the paradox that may be at the heart of our discontents.

Maybe the downside of our freedom is that we have too many choices. In our parents’ day, roles and expectations were much more proscribed. Nowadays, we are given free rein to be whoever we want to be. Such freedom can lead to insecurity and the sense that maybe we should be doing something else with our lives.

It is up to each of us to learn how to narrow down the choices in our lives, give of our time, money, and talent, and above all be grateful for all we have. These actions may be the key to our own happiness.