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:
“I talk to strangers
hoping to meet
someone like you”
“a day without you
is like a morning
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.
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.
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.