Can cookies connect us? One Minneapolis blogger’s year of happiness experiments

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.

I used to work as a grant writer for a Minneapolis poverty-fighting organization, and respected the all-encompassing approach they took to their work: meet people’s basic needs for food, housing, education, and employment, and also try to give them hope through encouraging pep talks and personalized action plans.

But I realized over time that our program didn’t really complete the circle. After basic needs and a sense of hope, people also need to have a connection to others, to their community, to thrive instead of just survive.

After realizing this, I reflected on different aspects of connection for a couple of months: how can we foster connection with people, especially strangers? What makes one person feel they can connect with another, and what turns them off? I decided that the best (and most fun) way to answer my questions would be with a public experiment.

I wrote three simple poems that morning:

 

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“Magritte Jennifer” with balloons.
(photo courtesy Jennifer Prod)

“I talk to strangers

hoping to meet

someone like you”

 

“a day without you

is like a morning

without coffee”

 

“your smile

made me forget

my parking ticket”

 

Then I called a screen printer and had them transferred onto large balloons. I filled them with helium and hung them in fun places around the city: attached to a bicycle, wrapped around a doorknob, twisted around a tree trunk.

Now, I can’t speak for the strangers in the street since I never saw them find the balloons, but I did get an amazing response online when I blogged about the experiment—lots of nice comments about how people wished something like that would happen to them, and even more about how they would like to do something similar in their own communities.

The feedback inspired me to plan more extreme “random acts of happiness.” I wanted the next to be interactive so I could gauge its true impact.

I’ve long been a fan of Henry David Thoreau, and try to live by the simple wisdom imparted in his classic book Walden. So this past July, I decided to celebrate America on the 4th, and Thoreau on his birthday, the 12th. I baked cookies to look like Walden Pond, made fun cards out of Thoreau quotes, and threw a little birthday party in the streets of Minneapolis.

Planning the experiment felt similar to throwing a birthday party for a friend. The excitement level was high, and I was anxious to make sure everyone had a good time. But my nerves about the public’s reaction skyrocketed as I walked out the door with cookies and cards in hand. Would anyone be receptive? Would people laugh, or smirk? I steeled myself for the worst and started off down Hennepin Avenue.

The first two people I approached denied my cookies, looked at me askance, and probably thought they had just avoided being poisoned. The third beamed when I mentioned Thoreau and asked if she could have two cookies (of course!). Then a trio of guys came over and asked if I was giving out treats. I told them about Thoreau’s birthday, they said they’d never heard of him, then each took a cookie and a card and walked away, munching happily.

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Jennifer’s Thoreau Birthday Party experiment.
(photo courtesy Jennifer Prod)

I met senior citizens, hipsters, big burly men, and women in sundresses. I talked with some about Thoreau, some about cookies, some about other topics altogether. Overall, I’d estimate that 10% thought I was disguising a kind act as a malicious crime, 20% thought I was weird, and 70% wanted me to meet their mom—not bad!

But I’d say that in 90% of cases, these strangers and I made a genuine, if brief, connection. I reached out with a simple gesture, and most of them reciprocated with kind curiosity. We met on middle ground. Over cookies.

Plus I had more fun talking to a bunch of strangers on the street than a bachelorette has dancing in Vegas.

That night in bed I journaled my ideas for more connection experiments. I wanted to find other ways to make people smile, see whether I could get a participation rate greater than 70%, and, selfishly, continue to feel the levity that comes with creating random acts of happiness.

Since then, I’ve enacted 40 more experiments—ranging from bubblegum competitions in the park to making ice cream with strangers at a lake—and there are 50 more I want to do next year. These random acts have put me in contact with hundreds of new people, let me in on unique stories about my neighbors, and taught me how easy connections can be to make—and how happy and whole they make us feel.

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Jennifer Prod is a blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. Most of Jennifer’s project ideas are replicable almost anywhere; if you want to get happy and create some connections, check them out on her blog.

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Old school postcards bring new connections to communities

Do you remember the last time you got a postcard from a friend? Or the last time you sent one?

For many of us, Facebook status updates and Instagram snaps have supplanted the old fashioned postcard as means of choice to drop a line describing where we are and what we’re up to.

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Remember these little guys? Postcards are coming back.
(photo courtesy Arlette, Flickr Creative Commons)

But a few enterprising souls are bringing the postcard back to life, with a twist—lots of the postcard projects currently trending offer ways to connect with people we don’t yet know, not just friends and family. Here’s a roundup:

  • The Neighborhood Postcard Project (an international offshoot of the SF Postcard Project) “fosters community connection through the exchange of positive personal stories from people in marginalized communities. Residents fill out a postcard with a story from their community; that postcard is then mailed to a random person in that city to create a stronger connection between people and communities.”
  • Postcrossing “allows anyone to receive postcards (real ones, not electronic) from random places in the world. Why? Because, like the founder, there are lots of people who like to receive real mail.”
  • The Postcard Collective is “motivated by an intrinsic human desire to share experience. Our mission is to build and maintain a network of individuals who seek to share their art with each other in the form of postcards, to open up a direct line of communication between artists, and to promote a sense of camaraderie and connectedness.”

There are actually tons more, too! Get Googling to check them out, then get your stamp wetter ready. (Oh wait, people really don’t use those anymore.)

Have you made an interesting new connection through a postcard interaction? Tell us about it!

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One key way to stay passionate about your work

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Sometimes it's easy to feel discouraged. (Photo credit: darrentunicliff, Creative Commons/Flickr)

In a 2010 TED talk, Kiva.org co-founder Jessica Jackley shared what motivated her to launch the microlending organization. Though she focused on how we need to reexamine our discussions and support of people who are poor, what resonated most with me was her journey from passive giver to active supporter. Instead of donating to organizations out of hope, excitement, and generosity, she donated to get away from a problem that seemed too big to address. In fact, she often wondered if social change was actually possible.

It wasn’t until she heard stories from people who were trying to move themselves out of poverty that she reconnected with her passion for change. Watch her talk to learn more about her journey.
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Though many of us do what we can to make a difference, sometimes we can get disconnected from the issues we’re trying to solve and the people we’re trying to help, especially if we’re not always doing direct service or the issues we’re addressing require long-term solutions. For Jessica, the key to staying connected was to reach out: “The best way to be inspired to try is to stop and to listen to someone else’s story.”

Questions for the community: how do you stay inspired, motivated, and connected to the work you do? What reminds you that social change IS possible?

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