Social Studies

Do you remember when it wasn’t weird to call someone on the phone? When you could call someone up, spontaneously, and the other person didn’t think that someone had died? I’ve been thinking about social capital lately, and also social courage. Social capital, the trust and connection between various people, was in the news in November, when a report by the Toronto Foundation revealed our city is quite low on it. Maybe it sounds airy-fairy, but it turns out social capital is vital: it can increase civic engagement, improve health (loneliness, one of our modern epidemics, has negative health outcomes), and improve our happiness overall. There’s even a subset of social capital called “bridging capital” that helps people connect in a positive way with people who are different than themselves. It’s pretty much the opposite of Twitter.

And then there’s social courage, which is a term I only heard recently on an episode of the Slow Home podcast that had an interview with Jocelyn Glei. Glei pointed out that now, when we don’t know something, we seek answers in our phones rather than other people. Think of the last time you were going to a restaurant: you probably looked it up online, maybe found some reviews, made a reservation on OpenTable, and then when it was time to go plugged the address into your phone. The magic of the internet! And yet it also took some interactions out of the mix: asking people where to eat, calling to make a reservation, asking someone for directions when you got close. And maybe those connections don’t matter—they’re not exactly social capital—but avoiding them does get us out of practice and makes us less brave for future interactions.

It shouldn’t be scary to ask someone for directions, but sometimes it can feel that way if we’re low on social courage. I would suspect that marginalized groups might be a little lower on it too—if there’s a higher likelihood of a negative income you’d be less likely to engage. But in general, as our lives get more tech-saturated, it seems likely our social courage will continue to wane: we used to go to stores, talk to a cashier, and now we can order from Amazon, or use the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. We talk about frictionless payments (tapping your credit/debit, one-click buying), but we’re making human interaction so frictionless it’s non-existent. Our social touchpoints are becoming touchscreens.

In a recent comic column in Yes Magazine, Sarah Lazarovic brings the necessity for social capital and our lack of social courage together beautifully. I love the scene with the man rehearsing his borrowing script in front of the mirror. It’s become scary to knock on a stranger’s door. (Lazarovic designed a printable badge you can put on your door to say you’re open to borrowing.) The comic also notably mentions the redemption of oft-denigrated “small talk,” which, recent studies suggest, actually makes us happier. Who would have thought people actually did want to talk on the subway?

Modern life has made it possible to move through the city, even move through the internet, like a ghost. Which is comfortable and easy, but it isn’t making us happy. And in the long run, the outcome is quite grim: it means we’re moving through life like ghosts. While yes, we still have friends and family, fewer and fewer people might notice we’re gone.

The good news is that this week I witnessed two examples of social capital in abundance. On Monday, I attended a lecture at the Parkdale & Toronto Horticultural Society. The event had at least 100 attendees, and in the announcements at the beginning of the meeting, you could see how many people were actively involved in running this event and the society’s many other ones. As they prepare for their annual plant sale, you could sign up on the day before, you could help people dig up and separate plants to donate, you could bake for the volunteers, transport plants, organize people, and so on. It was heartening to see social engagement become civic engagement too, as the group discussed gardening grants, maintaining community parks, and building pollinator corridors. All the members wore name tags, and the event included and hour of tea and cookies before the lecture started. Cynical me thought, “An hour? What for?” but of course the lecture is only part of the point. The experience was buoying, all in all, though it must be said that 90% of the people there would not be questioned when they used a senior’s discount. Is this a generation that hasn’t lost their social courage? Or have they maintained it by virtue of being in this group, and ones like it? Given how much we hear about loneliness among the elderly, I think the latter.

Then last night I went to my local co-op grocery for a workshop on making water kefir. Co-ops are run on social capital, with everyone who is a member pitching in in running the store. Though it was close to my house, I’d (embarrassingly) never been before, because I was intimidated and hadn’t taken the time to learn how it worked. The workshop was lovely, with a facilitator whose enthusiasm was contagious, and a handful of super friendly participants. I left mind buzzing with new knowledge and positive interactions with strangers. Sure, I could have ordered my materials online, read some tutorials. But there was no replacing meeting someone who was passionate about it, getting to ask questions and spend time with real live people who I’d never have met otherwise.

Listen I’m an introvert, and I’m shy around strangers. This isn’t easy. But also it isn’t that hard. Spring is here, and people are coming out of hibernation. There’s no better time to check out something new, or simply to slow down and say hello.

 

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#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.