Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.

I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.

What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.

Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.

A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.

I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.

Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.

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Happiness course

Go here if you’d like to learn more about the free “Science of Happiness” course.

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This piece has been cross-posted on my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

Looking ahead with a giving spirit

(Photo: DY)

(Photo: DY)

I start this post with a confession: I’m not fully walking the talk on this one. When it comes to charitable giving, there are some transcendant souls out there who set rare examples. I’m not one of them.

But lately I’ve been wrestling with this question: How can we best make a difference with our charitable contributions?

Given the frequent subject matter of this blog, I know there are many readers who are not in a position to contribute money to charities. But I know that others have that capacity, and I hope they’ll join me in thinking about this.

Lately I’ve been reckoning with my own giving, which has strongly favored charities that benefit those in the U.S. For a variety of reasons, I realize that I should also be contributing more to organizations and initiatives that are tackling extreme poverty around the world. I’ve been spending good chunks of time on the websites of two entities, The Life You Can Save and Giving What We Can, both of which offer powerful moral and ethical arguments that we should be donating more to reverse extreme poverty.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer’s project, The Life You Can Save, asks people to pledge 5 percent or more of their income to charities that are effectively addressing global poverty. Here’s a short description from the website:

The Life You Can Save is a movement of people fighting extreme poverty. We spread knowledge of what we can all do to reduce poverty and the suffering it causes. We encourage people to support highly effective aid organizations, and to inspire others by joining our community of over 16,000 people who have publicly pledged their commitment to help make the world a better place.

A British-based initiative, Giving What We Can, raises the bar higher, asking people to pledge 10 percent or more of their income to global charities fighting poverty in the world’s poorest nations. From its website:

The members of Giving What We Can each pledge to donate 10% of their income to the most effective causes. Giving more is easier than most people expect, and easier still when you’re part of a global community of givers, united by the vision of a world without poverty. Learn more about our members, the pledge to give, and what you can achieve by joining Giving What We Can.

(Many of the Giving What We Can leaders also are moral philosophers. Interesting!)

If you need to be persuaded of the worthiness of such giving, consider this: Your money can literally save lives. Again: You can save lives.

Helping “our own” first?

In the U.S., some will counter that we should help “our own” before making donations to help the poor in other countries. Certainly I believe we need to continue giving to charities that help those in need here. However, we also must keep in mind that even the poorest Americans, with the significant exception of homeless persons, have better living conditions than countless millions of others who battle dire poverty, sickness, and hunger on a daily basis.

So let’s not ignore “our own.” But let’s remember that we inhabit this planet with many others who are struggling merely to stay alive.

Put it in the will

Also, some will urge that monies should be saved and donated via one’s estate, rather than given away now. First, they say, interest can compound and increase the eventual gift. Yes, that’s true, but people are starving and dying now.

Second, some say that we shouldn’t be too quick to donate money that we may need in the event of a job loss, some other major financial setback, or retirement.

I confess to having those fears, and they trace back to much younger days growing up, when at times our family relied primarily on Mom’s meager salary as a kindergarten teacher as the primary source of income. Today I’m making a very good salary as a tenured professor, but the financial instability of higher education triggers those anxieties, and not without justification.

Nevertheless, such worries do not compare with going hungry for days or wondering whether your kid can obtain treatment for malaria. Not even close.

The amount

Many live frugally yet struggle to make it to the end of the month or to the next paycheck. This post is especially for those who don’t face such difficult financial burdens.

Yes, it’s about giving what we can.

Personally, my main 2014 financial resolution is to meet the 5 percent benchmark of The Life You Can Save. I’m hoping that by publicly saying so, I’ll both increase the likelihood of honoring my own commitment and encourage others to join me.

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The photo above is an enhanced version of an original I took in Colorado in 2012.

Thanksgiving, giving thanks, and giving back

 

photo

Today I’m hopping on a train to New York City (hence the Amtrak Acela poster from my office!), the travel piece of what has become an annual Thanksgiving get together with my cousins and friends. What began over a decade ago as an impromptu turkey day gathering is now a full-fledged tradition, and I look forward to it every year.

In classic New York style, we don’t start until the late afternoon. We’re all pretty hungry by the time the feast is served — and when I say feast, I mean it! The evening finishes up with many choices of desserts amidst singing and playing music.

Over the years, not much has changed about this gathering, the most noticeable difference being the kids now joining the grown ups at the main table. We repeat ourselves a lot from year to year, including well-deserved compliments to the chef and updates on how we’re all doing. That suits me fine. It is a source of continuity and connection, and a blessed reminder of how friends become family, and vice versa.

But for various reasons, I find myself a little down this year. I tend not to be the biggest holiday enthusiast to begin with, but I am particularly mindful right now of how many people are in need and how many are struggling with life’s challenges.

I started this blog five years ago, just as the Great Recession was going into full gear. Today, here in one of the world’s richest nations, we have millions who can’t find decent jobs, even more who are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, and a wealth gap that grows ever wider.

Beyond our shores and borders, the situation worsens, often by leaps and bounds. Recently I met a man around my age who is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been working in the U.S. for over 20 years. He lives on very little so he can send most of his earnings back to his family and village neighbors, who are in dire need of the most basic staples and provisions.

For those of us who are in a position to be thankful for life’s bounty, the best way to show our gratitude is to give back. Whether by way of money, service, advocacy, or some combination, we have opportunities to make a difference. As the saying goes, and inspired by multiple faith traditions, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, yes?

Working Notes: The Freelancer’s Bible, lifelong learning, and donating to NWI

I periodically use this Working Notes feature to flag items worthy of our attention. Here goes:

1. Sara Horowitz’s new guidebook for freelancers — Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, has authored a comprehensive guide for freelance workers, The Freelancer’s Bible (2012). Here’s how she describes it:

From nearly two decades working on behalf of America’s growing freelance workforce – including our 200,000 members – I’ve learned a lot about what makes a successful freelancer. It’s about networks, contacts, contracts, kindness, and so much more.

I hope The Freelancer’s Bible . . . will give you the practical steps you’ll need to be more nimble, flexible, and successful. The book includes sections like:

  • Seven Start-up Steps
  • Building Your Portfolio
  • Getting Clients
  • Marketing Yourself
  • Managing Your Work and Your Life
  • 10 Steps to Retirement Planning

I just received my copy, and it looks like a must-have for freelance workers. I look forward to spending more time with it.

2. Russell Sarder on lifelong learning — As long as I’m in the mood to pitch good books, here’s a quick, inspiring read. Sarder, an entrepreneur and author, is passionate about lifelong learning, as exemplified in his 2011 book, Learning: Steps to Becoming a Passionate Lifelong Learner.

He presents his philosophy and practice of lifelong learning through a series of short essays spurring us to “embrace being a committed lifelong learner,” “read an hour each day,” “build your own library,” and so on, buttressed by quotes from dozens of prominent lifelong learners over the centuries, drawn from many walks of life. It’s a neat little book that will make for a pleasant evening of reading.

You can learn more about Sarder from his website.

3. Donating to the New Workplace Institute — In 2006, I created the New Workplace Institute as a research and education center to promote healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces. As long-time readers of this blog know, much of NWI’s work has been dedicated to addressing issues related to workplace bullying.

The Institute is now a part of Suffolk University Law School and receives a very small stipend from the school in support of its work. I’d like to start building our capacity to sponsor more programs, hire more student interns, and pursue more activities, but we need to raise monies to make that happen. Just today a friend suggested that it’s time to engage in some fundraising, and she’s right. While a more formal appeal will follow, I would greatly appreciate your tax-deductible contribution in support of our activities.

If you’re in a position to donate, please make out a check to “Suffolk University Law School” with “New Workplace Institute” in the memo line, and accompanied by a short note directing the donation for use by NWI. Please send your donation to me at: Prof. David C. Yamada, Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108.

You’ll receive a personal thank you note and an acknowledgement from the University, along with my assurance that your gift will be used wisely and respectfully.

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector

It may be tempting to tag the big bad corporate world as the main locus of workplace bullying. But many who have toiled in the non-profit sector will tell you that work life in the land of crunchy granola and dreamy mission statements is not a picnic.

During the 10-plus years that I have been involved in the anti-bullying movement, I’ve heard dozens of accounts of employee abuse in the non-profit sector. I don’t know if bullying is more frequent in non-profit organizations than in private companies or government offices, but it would be a huge mistake to ignore its prevalence.

But why?

The non-profit sector is all about helping people, making a difference, and righting wrongs, correct? So how can such devastating behavior be commonplace in the philanthropic world? Here are some possibilities:

First, non-profits often are hierarchical, top-down organizations, with scant managerial accountability. To add to the problem, many non-profit boards exercise very little oversight when it comes to how workers are treated.

Second, some do-gooders believe that the nobility of a mission justifies neglecting to treat employees in a decent way. It’s all about the cause, right?

Third, non-profit managers are not always selected because of their leadership ability. More than a few are great at fighting for The People, but poor at leading and working with others on an individual level.

Fourth, non-profits often are expected to do more with less. Bullying can erupt when managers and co-workers feel the squeeze.

Fifth, workplace bullying transcends social and political beliefs. You’ll find workplace aggressors of all different political stripes, income levels, and faith traditions. There’s no reason why the non-profit sector should be immune from them.

Part of a bigger picture

In a great 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?” (link here), fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He especially criticized those organizations that deny their workers living wages and use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques.

Warwick didn’t talk specifically about workplace bullying in his article, but it would’ve made for a perfect addition. After all, his message was that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.” Treating workers with dignity is a pretty good start.

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On giving

You know the old holiday saying that it’s better to give than to receive? Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in connection with a recent BBC radio segment (link here) on a new initiative called Giving What We Can.

Giving What We Can (website link here) is a group of some 60 individuals who have pledged to donate 10 percent of their total income until retirement to efforts addressing poverty and suffering in the developing world. The campaign was started by a young Oxford University researcher named Toby Ord. Here’s a snippet from Tom Geoghegan’s BBC story:

Toby Ord, 31, has in the past year given more than a third of his earnings, £10,000, to charities working in the poorest countries. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime.

And he’s started a campaign to recruit, Bill Gates-style, other people to give up at least 10% of their lifetime’s earnings in the same way. A year on, 64 people have joined his movement Giving What We Can and pledged £14m.

Ord is not claiming to have taken an oath of poverty. As the piece explains, he and his wife Bernadette Young, a physician who has joined him in taking the pledge, live modestly but comfortably in Oxford. In fact, they believe that many people in developed nations can make this commitment without experiencing severe hardship.

The Problem

It is hard to contest GWWC’s basic premise: People making decent incomes in developed nations are the most economically privileged on earth. (Doubts? Check out the GWWC “How Rich Am I?” calculator, here.) For those of us who enjoy relative comforts of home and hearth, our everyday financial challenges pale in comparison to those who are experiencing unimaginable hunger, deprivation, and want. From the GWWC website, here are the stakes:

Of the 6.7 billion people in the world today:

  • 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 per day
  • 1 billion of these live on less than $1 per day
  • More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water
  • More than 800 million people go to bed hungry each day
  • More than 6 million children die each year from preventable diseases
  • More than 100 million children are not getting even a basic education
  • More than 800 million adults cannot read or write

Tithing

The 10 percent figure draws upon the concept of tithing, which has roots in religious faiths:

Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing.

I am not sufficiently versed in sacred texts to identify exactly where and how the idea of tithing appears, but an informative Wikipedia article on tithing will help you fill those gaps.

Who has pledged?

Notably, the list of Giving What We Can members (link here) appears to be long on younger grad student-types and short on lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and CEOs in the heart of their careers. Does this mean that GWWC is a passing fancy, a product of idealistic youth? Perhaps. Some of its members may drop out when mortgages and family obligations put greater pressure on their personal finances.

But I have a feeling that GWWC is more than that. At this point in its young life, GWWC has an unassuming seriousness of purpose and a moral core about it. For that reason, GWWC may have a strong appeal to people who are older and more financially secure, especially empty nesters and single folks who have nest eggs. While the thought of donating a tenth of one’s income at that stage in life may be daunting in terms of gross amounts, the idea of making a difference in this way can be deeply meaningful — especially when one understands the impact of even modest donations in the developing world.

It’s about choice, not guilt

What impresses me about Giving What We Can is the tone of commitment and reason, not preachiness and guilt. I’ve sent away for information and will be giving this serious consideration. I haven’t yet committed to taking the pledge — I want to get a better sense of the guidelines defining what counts as a qualifying donation and how my current charitable commitments fit into that scheme.  We’ll see.

For folks struggling to pay the rent, looking for work, or wondering how they’ll be able to pay their kids’ tuition bills, Giving What We Can may not be a viable option. But others may be looking for meaningful ways to give back. This is a worthy possibility toward that end.

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The Giving What We Can website contains a ton of thoughtful content on philanthropic giving. It’s worth a serious look even if this particular pledge is not appropriate for you right now.

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