Want to become a spirit-lifting, mood-elevating, cheer-engineering dynamo? Martha Beck maintains that brightening someone else's day requires far less effort than you'd think.
By Martha Beck
I'm one of those people who just want to make everybody's day. I love humanity! Each man's joy is joy to me! Let's be honest, though: I can't spend all my time bringing bliss to others -- I have work to do and bills to pay. Also, someone has to watch all six seasons of "Lost" on DVD, and to be blunt, I don't see you stepping up. But I digress.
My point is, I'm sure you, too, want to make other people's days, you with your six-page to-do list and your life-devouring job and that "will work for sleep" expression on your haunted little face. That's why I'm here to offer you not just seven ways to make someone else's day but seven ways to make someone else's day without getting up. You may need to dial a phone, but your torso can remain inert. That is my kind of altruism.
As you read the suggestions that follow, monitor yourself. If your mind says, Great idea! but your body says, Too much work, your body wins. Your mind will tell you it's virtuous to make someone's day in ways that make your own day stressful, but trust me -- that just cancels out the overall benefit. This is simple math, people. Undertake these do-good strategies if and only if they feel exceptionally easy.
1. Feel good around other people.
Back in the '60s (and by that I mean the 1660s), a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Huygens realized that multiple pendulums mounted on the same wall always ended up swinging in perfect synchrony, even when he had set them in motion at different times. This phenomenon is called entrainment, and in my experience humans are just as likely to fall in sync as Huygens's clocks. At the very least, many neuroscientists believe that our so-called mirror neurons can foster our ability to empathize with the emotions we observe in others. One rage-aholic can fill an entire office with anger, while a truly happy person can lighten the mood for everyone around her. I once spent several hours in a room full of large, sleeping dogs, who entrained me into such peace, I now count that uneventful afternoon as one of my life's highlights.
To make someone's day, all you have to do is stay physically near her while remaining in a state of contentment, humor, compassion or calm. Try getting deeply happy around any loved one, acquaintance or stranger. Refuse to let go of your good mood. You don't have to say or do anything else. Really. It'll make your day to see how easily you can make someone else's. And before you know it, you'll be soothing entire stressed-out crowds, like the ones you find at food courts and matador conventions.
2. Pretend people love you.
One of the statements that changed my life comes from spiritual teacher Byron Katie: "When I walk into a room, I know that everyone in it loves me. I just don't expect them to realize it yet." I'm by no means certain that everyone in every room loves me, but I've found that pretending they do works nicely when I want to make someone's day.
I spent much of my life wandering about armored against criticism and rejection, unaware that my wary defense appeared to others as inexplicable offense. And since everyone around me was also frightened, their defenses escalated the moment they encountered mine, which in turn ratcheted up to meet theirs, and so on. This emotional arms race drives people apart in every home, office, subway car, dentist's office, rice field and square-dancing school on Earth. But pretending other people love you flips the vicious cycle into a virtuous one. Imagine how you'd enter a public space -- say, a grocery store -- if you knew without a doubt that everyone in it adored you. How would you move? How would you look at people? What would you say? Now imagine interacting with a loved one while feeling so sure of her infinite, unconditional acceptance that you had no need for reaffirmation. How would you behave? You'd probably lay down some of your armor. Then she would loosen hers. Then you'd relax even more, and so on and on and on. Try it right now -- you can do so without getting up! Pretending someone loves you, right where you sit, will begin a day-making spiral of love.
3. Stop worrying about everyone.
Barbara sits before me fairly drowning in stress hormones. Her parents, who've come to the session with her, would do anything to eliminate her anxiety disorder and the panic attacks that go with it. Well, almost anything.
"We're so worried," says Barbara's mother, Janice.
"Mom, Dad," says Barbara, "please don't worry. It just puts pressure on me."
Janice's imploring eyes stay fixed on me. "What can we do?"
"Did you hear what she just said?" I ask.
"She's suffering," Dave, Barbara's dad, tells me.
"And what did she ask?"
"She needs to stop being so tense," says Janice.
"Actually, she asked you both to stop worrying," I say.
"Yes!" Barbara shouts.
"Well, of course we'll keep worrying," says Dave. "It's our job."
Barbara turns to me and whispers, "Help."
Mark this, gentle reader: Love and worry are not the same. (If you believe they are, I point you in the direction of blogger Jenny Lawson, who says: "A hug is like a strangle you haven't finished yet.") Think of someone you're worried about. Now replace worry with something else: creativity, perhaps, or singing or sudoku. I'm serious. It truly will make that person's day.
4. Advise people not to trust you.
One of the first things I tell new clients is not to trust me. Why should they? They don't know me. My job is to be trustworthy while telling them to put their trust where it belongs: in their own sense of truth. People often tell me that simply hearing this is enough to make their day. It's like taking spinach from a baby. (Whoever coined the phrase "taking candy from a baby" never had a baby.)
I also advise my loved ones, such as you, not to trust me. It's not that I'm pernicious or false -- it's just that I'm fallible. If you trust me before trusting yourself, you'll rob us both of excellent counsel. So please don't trust anything I've written here unless it resonates as truth. Count on your instincts to keep you safe; they will. Doesn't that make your day?
5. Get someone else to help.
This may require a phone call, so put a phone near your Barcalounger. Then arrange for a third party -- not yourself -- to help the person whose day you're trying to make. Ask her what she needs: groceries delivered? a cleaning person to detail the kitchen? You needn't bankroll these services. Just be the one who makes the call.
Many are the days folks have made for me by enlisting help on my behalf. And I didn't have to feel guilty about burdening them, because I know that getting help for someone else is way less arduous than asking for help yourself. So go ahead, tell a nutritionist about your husband's constipation. Schedule a massage for your tightly wound best friend. Use that phone! Make that day!
6. Gossip positively.
To praise people to their faces is to be disbelieved. Most of us doubt or discredit positive feedback, chalking it up to politeness or brownnosing or other social convention. But what people say behind our backs really sticks. My life changed in an adolescent moment when I picked up a phone extension, not knowing the line was in use, and heard a conversation about me, me, me! I don't know what had gotten into the speakers -- perhaps a great deal of what can only be called alcohol -- but they were saying nice things about me. This not only made my day; it served as a foundation for emotional survival during some tough times thereafter.
Today, "mistakenly" copy someone on an email about his best qualities. Leave positive comments about your children on notes "accidentally" scattered around the house. Admire people loudly to third parties when you know the admired are eavesdropping. Praise be.
7. Help a loved one play hooky.
This is an ethically gray area, so I would never say you should do it. I'm just hypothetically floating the crazy idea that one day you might happen to call in sick for someone you love ("Well, I think she'll keep the hand if the bacteria isn't antibiotic resistant, but it may be airborne..."). Once she's freed from school or work, you could do something that would enrich her life forever. If that's the kind of thing you'd ever do. Which I would never suggest.
One day my friend Allen called in sick for his girlfriend Jenny, then took her scuba diving to a coral reef where he'd previously planted an engagement ring (okay, the diving involved getting up, but the calling didn't). Now Allen and Jenny are married. Does she regret the memos she failed to receive that day, the emails that waited 24 extra hours for an answer? She does not. Go figure.
Now, I realize all of this is a lot to take in. If I were you, I'd sleep on it before trying any of these methods. Just lie back and let all this advice float out of your head. The information will return should you ever need it. Relax, relax, relax. That would really make my day.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).