#28goodthings: week 3

So, are we all happy yet? jk jk. In fact, despite hearing the magic sound of meltwater rushing down city drains, I had a challenging week. The personal lowlight was professional heartbreak that made me feel like my own sad puddle rushing for the drain. But that drove home how this stuff can be vital even when you don’t want to do it—especially then. So when I was feeling sorry for myself and 1.25 gin and tonics deep, and my pal asked if I wanted to go on a spontaneous run on the icy sidewalks in -18, I still said yes, though there was every good reason to say no. The endorphins and the company made a big difference. (And when I came home, I finished my drink.)

My tipsy, icy run also illustrates another important principle: these don’t have to look a certain way. My run wasn’t the best training (icy sidewalks = dodgy running), we weren’t kitted out in special gear, and I don’t think you’re supposed to exercise while drinking, but it was still a good thing. If tackling these seems intimidating, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, as Gretchen Rubin would say.

So here are seven new prompts for the week ahead:

  1. Make something. I have a note in my phone that says “It feels good to make things,” because this very basic premise is one of my most important principles, but because I’m an idiot I forget it all the time. Try making anything this week: I’ll still be working on fermenting some apple scrap vinegar, and as soon as that’s done I’m going to get into some natural ginger soda too, but of course your project needn’t be food-based. And remember, no need to buy something new: my vinegar is literally made from garbage.
  2. Take the long way. One of my goals for this project is questioning the need for efficiency in all things, so try something less convenient this week. Walk an errand instead of driving, make your cookies instead of buying them, take the slower route to work. Pay attention and see how it feels.
  3. Share something you have in abundance. There are so many things I love about gardening, but the mathematics of seeds might be my favourite: one seed can not only make dozens of fruits, but perhaps hundreds of seeds. Hundreds of plants out of one! It’s nothing short of miraculous, I think, and thus I’ve been giving a bunch away on Bunz, and will bring more to a seed exchange on Saturday. I want this city to be bursting with plants, and it’s an easy way to share something I love. But I have other things that proliferate easily: I root certain houseplants from cuttings, my kombucha scoby has offspring in many homes, when I make soap I end up with a ton of unsellable ends. Do you have something you can share? It could even be knowledge: I did an AMA on my company’s Twitter, because I realize I have expertise people want, and it’s not hard to share just a little of it.
  4. Write three reviews. Writing a review is such a quick and easy thing, and it can be really helpful to an author, podcast, local business, etc. It doesn’t take very long and doesn’t have to be profound, but it makes a difference, and it feels good to praise something you love.
  5. Play. We play a ton as kids, but as adults, play seems to be something that gets crowded out by responsibility. But it’s still really good for us. So this week, take some time to really get into playing: maybe it’s with your kid or your pet, or you dust off the backgammon set instead of watching TV with a friend or partner.
  6. Organize an event or a hangout. As an introvert and former only child, social situations aren’t something I usually crave, but I still do love to spend time with people I care about, and the Harvard Study of Adult Development — one of the longest running and most significant health and happiness studies — reminds us that the personal connections are paramount to well-being. The best way to plan a get-together you’ll like is to organize it yourself. It doesn’t have to be expensive or stressful: plan a walk with one person, have a couple of people over to play a board game, or organize a themed potluck at work. (Inspired by my friend’s workplace, I’ve organized an annual cheese potluck at work for a while now, and it is a source of great joy and great cheese.) I’ll be organizing another clothing swap, hoping to replicate last year’s success, and when you can tie your hangout into your values that way, you’ll get a happiness double-whammy.
  7. Meditate. I’m sorry, I know, it’s everywhere, but that’s because the science seems promising: numerous meta-studies show mindfulness practice can help reduce anxiety and depression and manage chronic pain. It may also increase compassion and support emotional regulation and stress reduction. It might help you sleep better. All good things! I’ve been meditating a couple of years now with the help of the 10% Happier app, and I’ve found it useful enough that I even pay to subscribe to it (which, my friend recently pointed out, may be the ultimate endorsement). But people like Headspace and Calm, too, and just about any app includes some kind of free trial. If you just can’t stomach it, maybe try out the technique of social psychologist Ellen Langer, and spend a few minutes just actively noticing things. (I love her interview on On Being.) You can always go back to looking for birds.

Next week is the last one in this project, and I have some prompts ready, but if there are any I’ve missed so far that you’d like to see me and others try, I’ve left a couple open spots, too, so lay your make-good suggestions on me. And if you’ve done some prompts and would like to share your highlights and discoveries, I’d love to hear them.

Until next week!







#28goodthings: week 1

You may have noticed: Winter is not yet over. In fact, it is not over with a vengeance, and today will bring ten to fifteen centimetres more of snow to sit on top of the  small mountains of seemingly unmeltable ice that’s less like former snow and more like icy lava that erupted and hardened over our city streets. And even though the light stretches a bit longer each day, this is probably the worst time of year and lots of people are having a hard time.

There is maybe no better time, then, to invest some effort in happiness, in making good for ourselves and others. I’ve read a lot on this topic over the years, and lately I’ve been spending some time with the slow living movement (and specifically the Slow Home podcast), which calls for slower, intentional living. My sister and her partner, who are twelve years younger than me, listen to their podcasts, lectures, even watch some things on YouTube, at 1.5x speed. Which strikes me as unenjoyable, but also a metaphor.

And so in these dog days of winter, I’ve decided to set a little challenge for myself for 28 days, trying to find some time each day to do one positive thing with intention. By the time I’m done, spring will have (hopefully) come like a rising tide, bringing back some essential buoyancy to all our lives. I’m going to share the seven things I’ll be focusing on each week (in no particular order), and maybe you’ll want to try some too.

Some of these will be things to do for myself, some for others, some for the world. And while I think it can be important to care for oneself, I don’t want this project to be a means of separation from the world, but rather a way to reengage with it in a focused, sustainable way. I want to distinguish this from the sunset yoga and green smoothies of #selfcare, which has been appropriated from its use in the ’70s and ’80s as a necessary and political act for queer and BIPOC communities. (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde.) Of course everyone should take some time to care for themselves, but for some it might be much more vital than for others.

None of the prompts in this project need to cost any money, because despite what Instagram might suggest, you can’t buy your way to happiness. I live in an expensive city, full of seductive ways to empty my wallet one $16 cocktail or hand-poured soy candle at a time. I want this to be a reminder that good things don’t have to come with a price tag.

These aren’t hacks, per se, or shortcuts to anything. What they are is a way to pay attention, to try new things, to focus on doing good things more often. I want to find something rewarding that’s outside of the cycle of busyness and numbed-out stimulus chasing. I want to challenge the insatiable more-ishness of modern society and take stock of what I have. I want at least one thing each day to be done with intention and to be worthy of my attention.

The things on my list probably won’t be revolutionary—they might even be obvious—but too often they’re things we don’t prioritize. Many are backed by science. They emphasize personal connection, health, sustainability, engagement, and novelty. They are meant to be experiments, not edicts. If you decide to play along, do some, do them all, do them in whichever order you choose.

For maximum benefit, pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after an activity. If you’re especially keen, write down what you notice. This whole experiment pairs well with noting three new things you’re grateful for each day, something I’m convinced has rewired my brain in a great way.

Here’s the to-do list for this week, starting today:

  1. Tell someone they did good: Take a couple of minutes to reach out to someone and tell them how they’ve done something great or influenced you in a positive way. We all want to think we’re having an impact, that we’re making this world better, but so often we don’t tell people. A mistake, because this can really boost your happiness, and theirs, says positive psychology expert Shawn Achor.  He even recommends sending a two minute email of thanks each day: “People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale. Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.”
  2. Cook a new meal: I know, this doesn’t always go well. But so often we get into recipe ruts, tired of everything we can make. Maybe make something you can freeze extra portions of if it goes well, so that you have a cache of something easy and delicious. Ideally try a recipe that’s vegetarian or vegan, since the scientists behind the planetary health diet suggest it’s healthier for us and for the planet. I think most of us have cookbooks gathering dust or many bookmarked recipes, here are four of my plant-based faves: Smitten Kitchen Everyday Yellow Dal, Oh She Glows African Peanut Stew (I like to puree mine, and usually leave out the greens),  Well-Fed Flat Broke’s Peanutty Soba Noodles with Kale, and Cookie & Kate Thai Spiced Bowls (I make it with the crispy tofu).
  3. Call or write a letter to your representative, or a corporation, asking them to do better: I know this doesn’t sound like fun, but pick something you care about and send a letter to someone in power. I often worry that I don’t know enough, that I’m not eloquent enough on a particular issue. Yes, do some research, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are models you can follow online, and if this really sends you into a stress spiral, organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation or Amnesty International allow you to send a pre-written letter with the click of a button. I think the shortcut will be less satisfying, but it’s better than nothing. Just make sure you read all of the letter you send so you’re still learning something.
  4. Unfollow/unsubscribe: Konmari your inbox and your feeds—no folding required! Say goodbye to people and organizations that aren’t in line with your goals or values, that generally aren’t worthy of the attention they suck up. If you haven’t opened or engaged with something in a few months, you probably never will. I (nervously) unsubscribed from shopping sales emails a year ago, and I have never looked back.
  5. Make some art: I know “art” is a lofty, intimidating term, but what I mean here is spend some time being creative without any goal. If you’re not good at it, all the better. No one is asking you to set up an Etsy store. Paint, colour, draw, crochet, collage, write a song, make a poem, whatever. Put on a Bob Ross episode or follow a YouTube tutorial if you must. You don’t need to buy new supplies, just work with whatever you have at hand or borrow some. (A lot of us have unused art supplies we’re happy to share.) Like many of these prompts, you could do this with a friend or partner or your kids.
  6. Swap something: We have so much stuff (300,000 items in the average American home!), and yet we’re bombarded with roughly five ads each minute we’re awake to encourage us to get more. Many of us struggle with debt, or savings that fall short of what we’d like. Luckily, bartering is back. Toronto and many other cities have a thriving trading community in the form of Bunz. But you don’t need to be a member of a dedicated trading group to get your barter on. You could do something as small as suggesting a book swap with a friend, where you both pick out a book you think the other would like. Swap a waffle iron for a tortilla press for a while and make some great new food. You could swap board games, or encourage your kids to trade a toy. None of these trade needs to be permanent. You could even go big and organize an event where people can swap clothes or soup or whatever you’d like. In the midst of Marie Kondo fever, this could be a hot ticket! I hosted a clothing swap last year, and it gave me most of the new clothes I needed and was a lovely time, and I once attended a soup swap that gave me a half a dozen meals instead of a whole mess of one thing. Whatever you choose, you’ll get something new, get rid of something old, consume no new resources, spend no money, and have a connection, however fleeting, with another human.
  7. Look for birds: My therapist once told a story about feeling low and walking down the street, when she suddenly she heard a riot of chirping. She couldn’t figure out where it was coming from at first, and then looked closer at a nearby hedge. Dozens of tiny sparrows were tucked in amongst the branches. So she stood there a couple minutes and just watched that strange bush full of birds. And she felt a bit better. Occasionally I like to challenge myself just to look for birds. I mean it literally, and luckily, even in a big city, there are often birds nearby. I doesn’t have to be birds, though. When spring (finally) arrives, I’ll look for all the early flowers. Pick something to look for, and it’ll force you to be present and look at your environment in a new way.

So there it is. Next Wednesday I’ll have seven more. I haven’t decided how I’ll share how this goes, but if you decide to join me in these experiments, send me a note or a message or leave a comment here, because these are things I always want to talk about. I wish we talked about them more. If you’re posting on the socials, I’m using the hashtag #28goodthings.

Spring is coming. But as we wait, let’s plan for a little goodness, a little engagement, maybe even a little joy.


Dig in

It snowed 31 cm over the last 18 hours or so, and this morning brought sparkling drifts high enough to swallow a Husky. I don’t mind being snowed in, generally, and luckily I can work from home and thus keep the snow as something pretty to look at and not melting in my boots. But this morning I started thinking about the sidewalks.

As renters, shovelling the sidewalks is not our responsibility. It is, in fact, one of the few things required of those who line their pockets with thousands of our dollars, year after year. It should be one of the few consolations in a housing market that has locked me out of owning my own piece of sidewalk that I do not have to shovel this one.

But guess what? My landlord rarely shovels. I can think of maybe once in 10 years. And I think that is true of a lot of landlords who do not live in the building they own. Now, I could call my lazy property manager, hassle him to come remove the snow. But that would take a while, and, to be honest, I’m always a bit nervous asking for something: I want to be the perfect tenant. I know that if I lose this apartment, we’re likely to pay at least 50% more, maybe even double. I work in a low-paying industry, and while I’m lucky a move wouldn’t mean poverty, it would have a significant impact on my quality of life, on my ability to save for the future. And while it may not be easy for the landlord to evict me, being a renter in Toronto always feels a little bit precarious.

But this morning both Metro Morning and @lindsayzv reminded me that basic sidewalk accessibility is bigger than my petty grievance. Consider the people with wheelchairs, the mothers with small children, the elderly. Do I want to make these people’s lives harder? I live on the same street as Jane Jacobs’ historic house, and I like to think of her eyes still on our street. But looking down my road, it was hard to even know where the sidewalk should be. There were a few shovelled-out paths to nowhere, a seam of mostly dropped stitches.

Sometimes I get too fixated on what I think is fair, which is to say, what feels fair to me. And when I’m so zoomed in on my square of sidewalk, I’m missing the bigger picture: I want a city people can move through. I want a city where we look out for each other, where we do things because it is right, not because we have to. I want to be a positive force. I may not want to shovel, but I want to be a shoveller. And so I did.