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Philosophical activism: For best results, start at the root


Many of us feel the need to take concrete action, with the hope that our children may have a better place to live in. However, without contemplating the deeper reasons for our problems, activism can become a Sisyphean task – acting repeatedly, without making any real change.

Wangari Maathai, the late Kenyan Nobel prize winner, spoke about certain aid campaigns that completely missed their purpose. As an example she presented a problem they had with disease infecting mosquitoes. This problem was “solved” by the donation and installation of mosquito nets in the villages. The problem is that the nets will decompose in time, and again the humanitarian groups will have to come to the rescue.

She offered a better solution – educating the people so they can develop solutions on their own and not be dependent anymore on external aid. That is, teaching them to fish instead of giving them fish.

Contemplation or thought without action, does not change anything. However, action without thought or contemplation is as dangerous and futile, it will seem to be a solution in the eyes of spectators, but will not bring any long lasting change. It is necessary to search for the roots of our problems, and these roots are usually not in the visible, physical sphere, but within man.

For example, tooth cavities are a physical problem. But if we dig deeper we will find that it is a result of bad nutrition, “sweet-tooth”. If we dig even deeper, we may find emotional reasons for the unbalanced consumption of sweets. And digging deeper we may find even deeper roots – mental patterns which lead to these imbalances. Of course we would like to fix the cavity first, because it is painful. But if we will not treat the roots of the problem, we will eventually need to remove the roots of the teeth.

In the same way, many of our problems are symptoms of our cultural mindsets, of the way we perceive nature, the world, and ourselves.

We need to prevent the pollution of our environment, but first we need to uproot the mindset that has separated us from nature in the first place.

We need to fight against war, but how can we redirect warring nations, when we cannot even solve small conflicts with our friends, family or neighbors?

We speak about economical disparity, but are we innocent of the mindset that puts matter over values, gains over brotherhood?


Therefore, the first step to understanding our problems, is to understand the human being. Real social change always begins with a change of the individual. The great philosopher and leader Mahatma Gandhi said that the Indian people are a bigger enemy to him than the English one, because more than just fighting the English people, it is crucial to educate the Indian people to believe in their right to freedom and autonomy.

He also said his biggest enemy is himself, because a person should be the change he wants to see in the world. That, actually, is the greatest and most profound challenge of every true idealist and philosopher.

We need to re-think Activism.

It is essential to integrate activism with philosophy.

We need to seek after the roots of reality, and to gradually change our perception, and as a result our behaviors as well. It is necessary to integrate action and contemplation and to bring to light a form of philosophical activism.

Gilad2Gilad Sommer is the director of the “New Acropolis” philosophy school in Chicago. “New Acropolis” is an international organization seeking to promote fraternity among people, comparative investigation and self-realization, through philosophy, cultural activities and volunteering.

4 Tips On How To Avoid Becoming Cynical

An unfortunate truth about law school is that it can be a real downer.

It’s expensive, demanding, and remarkably difficult. As a second year law student, I have spent the past two years watching most of my friends go through profound personal changes, often observing people I love spiral into cynical patterns of thought. I think those of us in human rights law have a particular tendency to fall into such cycles, and I’ll admit I have gone through phases of severe negative emotions myself.

As a bleeding heart and eternal optimist, I’d like to offer some advice to those going through a similar experience. This post is blunt and riddled with smidges of sarcasm, but it is also a true capturing of my experiences, and comes from someone who has found sincere happiness and fulfillment on the legal path (yes, there are a few of us!).


It might be rough out there, but don’t let it wreck you.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

1. Stay in denial

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I do think it’s important to remember the benefits of delusion. You can sit around all day thinking about the debt you’ll be in, the hard work your career in human rights law will entail, and the fact that you’ll likely feel overwhelmed and underappreciated for significant portions of your working life.

And why wouldn’t you? All of those points are true, right?

Yes, mostly they are. But there are other truths on the subject worth exploring as well.

Although learning to be rational and realistic is an important aspect of your legal career, sometimes the solution to stressful thoughts is simply not to dwell on them. Debt is scary, and examining world problems will inherently be an overwhelming experience. However, as a human rights advocate, it will be important to always remember the rewarding nature of your work and the satisfaction that comes with feeling good about what you do.

So don’t dwell on the negative. Focus on the positive realities of the field and ignore the rest as best you can.

2. Surround yourself with equally delusional people

The problem with law school is that it’s filled with lawyers—folks who spend their days reading and re-reading heart-wrenching cases as their debt radically accumulates (debt they’re incurring so they can afford to be hazed, broken, and scoffed at).

But here’s the good news. Law school is also filled with intelligent, passionate, and optimistic people. Sometimes they’re just hidden in the background of the day-to-day drudgery.

Law school gives you the profound privilege of connecting with bright, persevering individuals. Focus on those people—they’re the ones who will further your happiness and support you in your career goals, not serve as a daily reminder of the pitfalls of your future vocation.

It takes courage and skill to be happy during difficult phases of life. Don’t give up, and surround yourself with others who haven’t either.

3. Intern or volunteer at a human rights organization

Internships are an essential component of a legal education, and it can be terribly tempting to accept a position from the biggest law firm or most renowned judge who offers. Although people told me I was crazy and stupid for throwing away such opportunities, I knew that in order to make an educated professional decision, I had to experience human rights law as a student.

It’s a difficult fork in the road to encounter, and this choice is not for everyone. But I wouldn’t trade my internship experience for anything because it opened my eyes to the incredible things I could actually do with my degree. Furthermore, because it’s such a complicated division of the law, I now have experience in international law, United Nations protocol, immigration law, federal courts, business law, tax law, constitutional law, government law, legislation, policy work, political analysis, and many other fields that intertwine with the subject of human rights. I have met role models, made connections, and gained perspective on what I can do within the boundaries of my profession.

Currently, I work in a civil and human rights lobbying firm in Washington, DC, and I can’t imagine a better experience. Every day I am surrounded by optimistic people who radiate joy, passion, and hope. We have hard days, but our good days are so profoundly fulfilling, it makes it all worth it.

4. Remember what a treasure your education is

You might have heard the phrase “the world doesn’t need more lawyers,” but the truth is that the world does need more human rights advocates in all professional fields. Education creates many chances for personal improvement, but for me, it also opened doors to helping others.

My education is my most valued possession. It has been emotionally draining, financially difficult, and overall I expect it to be one of the most difficult things I will ever go through in my life. However, it has also equipped me with an unusual skill set and understanding, and has been the most important investment of my life.

Some days, I feel cynical, small, and overwhelmed. I want to declare my work a losing battle, throw my hands up, and walk away. However, that’s when I take a moment to step back and remember how lucky I am to have such an incredible opportunity. I have the chance to educate myself, understand the world, and use my talents to help others.

Who could have all that and stay cynical?


Victoria Slatton is a second year law student at Pepperdine University and a passionate advocate for human and civil rights. She believes in justice, equality, and the true value of mischievous behavior.

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There’s money out there: 4 good fundraising angles for your passion project

On Idealists in Action, we love to tackle your biggest obstacles to doing good. One we hear a lot is, “I don’t have the skills or knowledge to start something.” This week, we’re taking that behemoth down.

Raising money for a personal project is seldom a walk in the park. But with corporate social responsibility in vogue and the Internet leveling the communications playing field, there’s never been a better time to give funding your passion project a shot. Here are four solid ways to approach the task:

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Why The Earth Doesn’t Need Saving (But We Do)

My cousin used to drive a battered Subaru Leone wagon. You know the kind: it was the low-slung, boxy prelude to the sleek and ubiquitous Outback, and like all ancient Subarus that survived to see the twenty-first century, it was baby blue and puttering slowly but steadily home from the moon. At least, according to the odometer.

It was the kind of car that separates a certain breed of dirt-under-the-nails environmentalist from their well-heeled, Prius-driving counterparts. Accordingly, plastered to its rattling rear bumper was a sticker bearing a wry inscription: “Save the Humans!” implored a Greenpeace-esque whale, entreating tailgaters and passers-by.

At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a darkly humorous joke. A decade later, I think it’s the best environmental slogan I’ve ever heard. That’s because the sentiment it mocks—the notion that humans could and should ‘save the Earth’—is misguided at best and preposterous at worst. Us humans are the ones with serious cause for concern, not the planet. The tongue-in-cheek sentiment of that bumper sticker is dead on: we are the ones in need of saving.

Source: Flickr/jsmif

Is this bumper sticker ironic or prophetic?
(image via Flickr/jsmif)

Let me be the first to admit that this sounds a tad melodramatic and more than a little unscientific. But I am a scientist (a geologist, specifically) and here, I will endeavor to convince you that this is the most rational conclusion to draw from the vast and heavy weight of geologic evidence.

Consider, for perspective, just these select episodes of the Earth’s long and incomprehensibly violent past:

For the first billion years of its existence, our whole sphere burned with angry flames of primordial rock. An entire planet made of lava that shuddered under an unrelenting rain of extra-terrestrial shrapnel—asteroids and comets and bits of other planets that failed to form from the solar nebula. One impact of a Mars-sized object was so catastrophic that it peeled off a wave of molten crust, thrusting it into orbit to become the moon.

In the relative calm of an adolescent solar system, life on Earth evolved, but sheepishly, out of sight, in the dark depths of the early oceans. Above water, the planet bore no resemblance to its current state. The continents had barely begun to grow, rising like fat to the top of a stockpot above the churning mantle. Carbon dioxide cloaked the planet in a torrid haze—concentrations may have been 25 times higher than they are today—trapping the precious radiation of a faint young sun and preventing the seas from crystallizing into solid ice.

The atmosphere then would have poisoned human lungs because it lacked even the slightest trace of oxygen. This gas did not become a major component of the atmosphere until about 2 billion years ago—half the Earth’s age—when the first photosynthetic bacteria belched it out in an accident of metabolic chemistry. For ninety percent of Earth’s history, nothing colonized its continents, not even so much as a chewing-gum smear of lichen. From afar, the planet would have looked aqueous and dull, lifeless and static.

Around 600 million years ago, after the Earth thawed from a bout of global glaciation known as Snowball Earth, life bigger than a grain of salt evolved for the first time. And then it was eradicated by a rogue meteor. And then it proliferated again. And again was flattened. In all, natural forces have quashed the diversity of life a staggering five times. The largest episode, when nearly all marine species went extinct 250 million years ago, may have been caused by the arrival of a new and highly successful bacteria that destroyed the environment that nourished it (sound familiar?).

pull quoteIn the last one million years alone, great ice sheets have waxed and waned at the beck and call of slight wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Armies of glaciers rode back and forth across Canada and the American Midwest. Antarctica and Greenland swelled and overflowed, together sucking three hundred feet of sea level into their frigid masses. These ice sheets came and went in a matter of millennia, radically transforming the planet with each revolution.

Basically, it boils down to this: the Earth has seen it all and there is little scientific doubt that until the sun explodes—engulfing the planet in burning garlands of hydrogen and helium about five billion years from now—the Earth, like the Dude, will abide.

Good story, I know, but can it help us make sense of the world we live in and the problems we face?

On the one hand, when viewed against the long gaze of geologic time, it is tempting to conclude that we are a meteor of a species, a plague of opportunistic bacteria, devastating the planet with blind greed and the reckless momentum of self-interest. In this formulation—a riff on the standard narrative of environmentalism—the Earth is the victim and humans are the agents of doom.

For example, it’s clear that humans have reshaped the planet on geologic scales of space and significance in the equivalent of a geologic instant; we live in a time for which there is no geologic analog. In a century, humans have rewound the clock four million years to the last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high. That carbon now permeates the ever-rising oceans, and is curdling its waters into an acidic solution that threatens to unravel the marine food web. New research even shows that the Earth now spins around a slightly different axis—in the last eight years, it has readjusted to regain its balance, compensating for the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

And those are just the climate effects.

We have defiled our waterways with toxic chemicals, antibiotics, fertilizer, and waste, which eventually make their way to the sea. These pollutants mingle with the islands of garbage that spin, despondent, in the lonely gyres of the oceans. Our refuse even litters the slopes of the deepest submarine canyons, places that know nothing of human life save its plastic legacy. We have reworked the terrestrial surface of our planet with unflagging vigor, and its scars can now be seen from space. Every year, through habitat destruction, inadvertent besiegement, or explicit eradication, we drive scores of other species out of existence.

This all sounds dire. However, one could reach an alternative conclusion from juxtaposing the current state of affairs with a geologic perspective on life and disaster in the universe:

The planet Earth has survived far worse trauma than we could possibly inflict upon it.

Though we are powerful, we cannot grow ice sheets on command, we cannot summon asteroids, we cannot remove oxygen from the atmosphere and ocean or burn enough fossil fuels to raise carbon dioxide levels as high as they have been before. Even our nuclear waste, perhaps our most lasting impact, will become benign within a million years—the blink of a geologic eye (or 0.02% of Earth’s history).

Bad for the ocean, yes, but mostly bad for us. Photo: Shutterstock.

Bad for the ocean, yes, but perhaps worse for people who depend on the ocean for survival—which is all of us. (photo via Shutterstock)

Truly, the mess we’ve created is mainly a problem for us.

We need clean water to drink and bathe in. We need stable growing seasons to produce food and commodities. We need the billions of dollars in ecosystems services that biodiversity and the natural world provide, free of cost, and which we seem hell-bent on undermining. We suffer from extreme weather—just one manifestation of climate change—which causes death and destruction and economic hardship. We mourn the loss of the fisheries we drove to collapse and the coastal systems we poisoned with runoff. We face the intimidating challenge of protecting the world’s low-lying cities through fortification or, more likely, relocation.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, problems of environmental degradation and climate change are not threats to the Earth at large. They are challenges to human survival.

This does not excuse the collateral damage we’ve inflicted on other innocent species. We have certainly destroyed many forms of life, but we cannot eradicate life itself. Life crawled back from the hydrothermal vents and rodents’ nests where it weathered the catastrophes of eons past, and there is no reason to think we will stand it its way now. New life, different life will recover. Except perhaps not human life. Homo sapiens may be committed to the ranks of ephemeral fossil species that came and went in 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. In all honesty, we’re bound there sooner or later, as nearly every species has been before us (except possibly a few primitive strains of bacteria).

If we as a species are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs at some point, then the question becomes one of temperance. Can we focus our hefty primate brains on the formidable tasks of foresight, prudence, and self-control? Can we dampen our eagerness to hasten our fate?

Scientists are hard at work trying to figure out how long we have to choose a wiser path before the costs become too great. However, there is strong consensus that the longer we wait, the more drastic our response must be. Our prodigious intellect certainly holds solutions to the predicament of our species. But first, we must abandon the charade that saving the Earth is anything more than an act of selfish necessity. If we thrive or fail, the planet will remain, just as it always has. Our selfishness may, in fact, be our only hope of surviving.

In light of this, it seems to me that we should reorient our relationship to the natural world. Don’t rally the masses to save the Earth. The Earth will be just fine. Instead, invert the rallying cry of the conservation movement: as the ironic whale has always said, “Save the humans.”

unnamedJulia Rosen will soon complete her PhD in geology at Oregon State University, where she studies ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to learn more about climate change. She is also a freelance science writer, an outdoor enthusiast, and a lover of this beautiful, fascinating, and indestructible planet.



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The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?


“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like).
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).



Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.




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Tiny houses open big doors for Wisconsin’s homeless

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

In October 2012, we were jazzed to write about the tiny houses movement, and have been excited to watch it gain traction since then. Here’s an update about a new use for tiny houses being developed in the Midwest.

Homelessness is an unfortunate fact in our society, and one we consistently struggle to understand and address. In Madison, Wisconsin, a group called OM Build has a new take on the issue—and it happens to be tiny. Say hello to…

Tiny houses!


Too cute! One of OM Build’s tiny houses.
(photo courtesy Lauren Wagner)

These 99-square foot houses are built cheaply and without a need for serious, specialized construction skills. OM Build is betting they’ll help address the need for homeless housing in Madison and change the conversation around homelessness in the city.

Based on a similar project in Portland, Oregon, these tiny houses (for now) must be moved every 48 hours to comply with a city ordinance. (Good thing they’re built on wheels!) OM Build—which grew out of the Occupy movement in Madison last January (OM stands for Occupy Madison)—has been working with community leaders to change laws and make a more permanent “tiny village” possible. Not only would this alleviate the burden for residents of having to literally move house every two days, it would make it easier for people to form a community of neighbors.

As Brenda Konkel of OM Build says, “We started out doing this for homeless folks, but our ultimate goal is an eco-village where there are equal amounts of people who are formerly homeless and not.”

What makes it work?

  • The houses are cheap to build (around $5,000 per unit), easy to construct, and mobile.
  • Propane tanks for heat and pole-mounted solar panels for lighting make tiny house living both more affordable and environmentally friendly than many alternatives.
  • They are super cute and colorful—downright attractive! As Brenda puts it, “People don’t like tents.”
  • People approved to live in the houses contribute sweat equity toward their future homes (see the whole application process). This gives them work experience and a bigger emotional stake in caring for their new residence.
  • The project also appeals to people who are not homeless but who want to live in a more eco-friendly way. Garnering interest from multiple sides of the community is helping OM Build to crowdsource its ideas and tasks, and gain momentum across a wide audience.

Growing OM Build

OM Build completed its first two houses in the second half of last year, and house number three is currently in the works. They’ve also established a board of directors, of which half the members are homeless. They’re meeting with public officials regularly to get help navigating some legal red tape, and their offer to purchase a property where tiny houses could be parked permanently was recently accepted.

So far, OM Build has run on roughly $30,000 in donations. With the proceeds from an online fundraising campaign planned for this year and a recently-held silent auction, they hope to up their game.


Tiny houses offer us a new way to look at an old problem. They give us a chance to use public space in a different, helpful way, and provide a real, physical tool with which we can counter homelessness.

They also remind us that good things can come in small packages.

To learn more about OM Build’s tiny house project, visit their website, or check out their campaign on Indiegogo.

Linkedin #1-1


Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis, “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.



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We’re getting closer. Let’s also get kinder.

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are only six degrees of separation between all people. 45 years later, two scientists in Taiwan incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and concluded that the average number of degrees of separation between two individuals is currently more like 3.9. 
This blog post by Jennifer Prod, which we’ve adapted below, explores some of the reasons for and implications of this shift.

Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me—working on your computer a lot and keeping up with various social networks—then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.

Chances are high that you’re even interacting with your Internet connections more often than your geographical neighbors. One reason for this is that social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography. For the first time, we can make friendships based exclusively on interests and similarities, without proximity as a prerequisite. Amazing!


We’re living closer together than ever now—physically and online.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

But here’s a more nuanced thought about this shift: As the geographical distance between the people we share our daily lives with expands, our definitions of ‘neighbor’ and ‘community’ are expanding, too.

Small town people are famous for their hospitality. We can reason that much of their kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again. Chances are high that if you smirk at someone in the grocery store, you’ll see her face pop up another time soon—when she becomes your new insurance rep, for example, or neighbor, or (worst of all) boss. Keeping this possibility in mind incentivizes polite and friendly behavior.

People in larger cities, though, where high density almost guarantees that we’ll interact with new people on a daily basis, are apt to take more social chances and risk being rude because we think we’re free from future consequences. But this is changing.

In today’s world, it’s very likely that you’ve interacted with many of the ‘strangers’ you see on the street on digital networks in the past. And it’s even more likely that you’ll interact with more of them on such platforms in the future.

So what’s the proper course of action for all the new faces—and concurrently, new irritations—that we inevitably encounter in our urban communities?

It’s called kindness.

Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet at the market, the café, the park, and the bus stop. Clearly, kindness is the best policy no matter where you are, but we’re poised to personally feel the effects of neglecting it now more than ever. You may not meet the same person again in the same physical space, but chances are good that you will reconnect with them in the digital sphere. And the closer everyone gets, the less you want egg on your face.

headshotoption(1)Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who likes to read in trees and start lakeside chats with strangers. She wrote about happiness experiments for Idealist this past December, and posts about creativity, positivity, and community all the time on her blog.

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Make a bad decision last year? Here’s how to cope

When we move from ideas to action, we run the risk of making decisions we regret.

Sometimes regret might seem unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to drag us down. Here’s why regret happens, how to overcome it, and how to make better decisions in the future.


Bad decisions always have an opposite angle.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Why we feel we’ve made a bad decision

When it comes to decisions that truly have no right or wrong answer—and there are many in the world of doing good—there are three rationales that can cause us to think we’ve made a wrong choice.

Myopic view of the world

We are all just one piece of a much larger puzzle, but it’s easy to lose that perspective when we’re each responsible for so much in our daily lives. When we think of ourselves as more crucial to a situation than we actually are, the weight of regret stemming from a bad decision can grow.

High expectations

In a world of seemingly endless opportunities, it’s easy to build up our expectations. We might want to come up with a genius idea for a life-saving tool, be influential in advocating for a cause, or leave a helpful legacy to an organization we love. Expectations like these can be motivating, but they also greatly raise the stakes to do well—or risk feeling profound regret if we don’t.

Getting stuck on “what if?”

Even after we’ve made a choice we think is good, part of us can still be tempted to dwell on what we didn’t do: “What if I had gone the other way?” Thinking about the routes we didn’t take can easily lead to making us dissatisfied with the ones we did.

How to overcome regret

We all feel regret about a decision from time to time, but if your sadness and guilt are outstaying their welcome, here are some ways to hit “refresh” and redeem yourself.

Put things in perspective

Make it a goal to come to peace with the fact that you can’t change your past decision. To do this, it can be very helpful to focus on the things you learned as a result of your choice, and how you can use those lessons going forward.

Talk it out

Ask for the ear of a friend, family member, or someone else you trust. Speaking to them about your decision and rationales can create a catharsis that will allow you emotional release from your feelings of regret. Also, explaining the details of your choice aloud to someone may help you clarify and better understand why you did what you did.

Think positive thoughts

Norman Vincent Peale’s classic book The Power of Positive Thinking, first published in 1952, isn’t on the bestseller list anymore, but its central idea remains a powerful tool for determining how we feel. Even if you think you have a real reason to be unhappy, you can still choose to be happy.

How to make good decisions

After making a “bad” decision and experiencing regret, it’s time to get back on the horse. Here are some steps you can take to help ensure you feel more confident in your decision-making going forward.

Don’t procrastinate

Yes, it’s good to take time and think thoroughly about your options, but don’t let that be an excuse to not make a decision.

Imagine yourself in each scenario

If you’re deciding between two options, try them both on for a minute. Imagine you’ve chosen option A: what does the result look like? How do you feel in the position it brought you to? Which additional doors did it open, and which did it close? Do the same for option B, and compare the results.

Create a pro and con list to help you evaluate

Write out the benefits and liabilities you can foresee with each option. Then tell family, friends, and mentors about your situation and see if they have any experience or pros and cons to add—they might reveal insights you never would have thought of. (Of course, take any advice as only one slice of your decision-making pie. Don’t let anyone pressure you into a decision you’re uncomfortable with!)

Be confident (or act like it if you aren’t)

Once you make a decision, don’t allow yourself to entertain distracting thoughts of how life might have been if you had gone a different way. Learn to love your choices, and you’ll love your life!

Alicia + PageAlicia Lawrence is a content coordinator for WebpageFX and blogs in her free time at MarCom Land. Her work has been published by the Association for Business Communication, Business Insider, and Ask Miss A. You can find her on Twitter (@Alicia_Lw) and Google+.

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Nix the partridge: 12 ways to spread joy past December


From Flickr user AForestFrolic (Creative Commons)

Happy holidays! While our writers take a couple of days to savor the season, we thought you might enjoy an updated version of this classic post (which originally appeared here).

No matter how you look at it, the next couple of weeks are sure to be full of a special seasonal energy. For some, that energy can verge on manic, which kind of takes the fun out of it.

For example, gift buying can get expensive. PNC Wealth Management calculates the 2011 cost of the gifts listed in the familiar “12 Days of Christmas” song at $24,263 – or over $100,000 if you decided to give a partridge in a pear tree twelve times, two turtle doves eleven times, and so forth ’til your true love’s tree would be surrounded by a jumble of 364 amazing gifts.

Here are twelve things you might do to brighten the season for yourself and others that don’t involve so many visits to the ATM.

Give time:

  • Look close to home and find a holiday project where you can pitch in as a volunteer via the search tools at the top of Just using the word “holiday” in the box marked “What?” and “Seattle” in the box marked “Where?” turned up 14 different and interesting things to do in my hometown.
  • …And resolve to volunteer in 2014. Sure, a soup kitchen is an obvious choice at Thanksgiving and sorting toys is popular come Christmas. But can you commit to things after the holiday rush, fight the winter doldrums and get to know your community better? Set up Idealist Email Alerts to stay informed about volunteer opportunities.

Give attention:

  • Reminisce with family, friends, or neighbors. Look at snapshots from holidays past, talk about the times when things went right (or wrong – hopefully with only comic consequence), and record stories of holidays past. Storycorps has DIY tips.
  • Say ‘thanks’ to someone who works in community service. Look online for the name of the board chair or ED of an organization you admire and write a brief note of appreciation for what the organization contributes to the community.
  • Surprise a neighbor with a homemade treat or hand-picked seasonal bouquet. Best of all, do it anonymously, so there’s a bit of happy mystery about how it happened.
  • Experience your holiday in a new way. Attend a community group’s concert, dance performance, or play that you’ve never been to before. Even better: Take a kid or two along with you!

Give your voice:

  • Read aloud from a favorite holiday story-book. For those who celebrate Christmas, Google Books has an 1849 edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas (or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) with fabulous illustrations online for free.
  • Sing! In the shower, with a group caroling in the neighborhood, in your place of worship…

If you can, give money.

  • Give cash. Times are tough for many of us, but for those who can spare even a few dollars, see my 2010 post full of tips for year-end donations.
  • Find a “Giving Tree” (or other community gift exchange for kids) and add your contribution to someone’s holiday cheer. The Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots is active in many communities.
  • Look abroad to places that need our help even once they’re out of the spotlight. The Philippines, for example, has lots of recovery work ahead. Google Disaster Relief also offers links to reliable ways to help out in many parts of the world, as do familiar newspapers and magazines; try a quick online search.

And, since I doubt your shopping list will disappear entirely…

  • Give experiences or contributions instead of objects. For theater-goers, a gift certificate for a pair of tickets. For mountain bikers, a membership in the local single-trackers club. Whatever your friends and family love to do, nudge them in that direction and you’ll get the vicarious pleasure of imagining them doing what they like best with your help. Alternatively, spread the warm glow by supporting a favorite organization in someone’s name.

Warm wishes from all of us at!

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‘Tis the season: Tips for end-of-year donations

Happy holidays! While our writers take a couple of days to savor the season, we thought you might enjoy this classic post (which originally appeared here).

It’s December, which means you’ve probably started getting requests for donations from worthy causes. Here in the U.S., the income tax rules and the holiday spirit both nudge in the same direction: give what you can, before January 1.

Here are three tips for making gifts that matter. (And matter they do, no matter the size!)


From Flickr user Alexandra Campo

Tip #1: Understand the tax rules.

If you choose to itemize deductions on your income tax return and you want to include your charitable contributions in the mix, then it’s important to follow the guidelines that the law, and the IRS, have established:

  • the organization must be eligible (usually it will say so in the materials);
  • you’ll need a receipt or some other documentation of the amount;
  • and the gift must be made before the 1st of January to go on this year’s tax return.

There are other, more complicated, rules about larger gifts and in-kind donations. And if you don’t itemize deductions, you still get some credit in the standard deduction. These are calculated using the giving habits of all non-itemizing households. Check the IRS site if there’s anything unusual about what you’re planning to do.

Tip #2: Choose wisely.

Maybe you’re getting a lot of requests, more than you can afford to give. How do you get through the thicket of year-end appeals that tug at your generosity? If you don’t have a personal philanthropy plan, you can make a simple one:

  • Decide on an amount you’re willing, and able, to give. The average household donates about 2 percent of disposable income each year.
  • Consider the organizations you already know, and know you want to support, so you can decide how much to give to each of them.  Then you’ll know how much you might have left over to respond to new requests.
  • If you’re thinking of giving to a new organization, ask yourself “What does this organization do?” and “Do I admire how they do it?” With nearly 2 million nonprofits at work in the U.S., there are lots to choose from.  Looking at websites, reading fundraising appeals, and searching online to see what others have said about the group are good ways to see how strongly the goals, and the methods, appeal to you.

Tip #3: Maximize.

Financial data—the sort of information many charity “watchdogs” focus in on—can only take you so far.  Some causes are hard to administer, others are hard to raise money for.  Spending less than counterpart organizations doesn’t necessarily mean greater efficiency, it may just mean a different approach to the problem.

There are some things donors can do to help put the maximum resources to work, though:

  • Respond quickly to requests, especially to renewal notices.  It costs money to prepare mailings so a quick response, even if it’s a “not this year,” is doing the organization a favor.
  • Consider making fewer, larger gifts. That will focus your support on program work, not processing costs.
  • Positive you won’t ever support Organization X? Ask them to take you off the mailing list so they won’t waste their money on appeals addressed to you.

Finding the money to build stronger, healthier, more lively communities is hard work. With a little preparation and some thought, your year-end gifts can support that work and make an important difference for causes and organizations you care about.

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