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!

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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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“The need for kindness and all the things working against our achieving it”

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George Saunders (photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times)

If you’re reading this, I’d wager you’re a pretty kind person. After all, you’re visiting Idealist—likely looking for an opportunity to help someone or learn something about the world or otherwise make use of your altruistic inclinations. And good on you!

But kindness is a curious thing: few would argue its merits, the cultures and religions of the world have long lofted it, we often recognize it as the basic instinct behind all our good intentions and the actions we take to make them real—so how can it seem at times so scarce, so elusive, so hard to maintain?

The concept of kindness often comes up in the works of bestselling author George Saunders. In this excerpt from the convocation speech he gave to Syracuse University’s 2013 graduating class, he articulates a few of his thoughts on why kindness is important, what obstacles can keep us from being as kind as we could be, and how we can maximize our kindness potential. Read the beautiful speech in its entirety here.

…Here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.

…Quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Have you been inspired to better practice kindness? Tell us your story in the comments.

 

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Idea File: Pie-a-Day Giveaway

The idea

After hearing about someone who had written a thank you note a day for a year, Karen Amarotico from Ashland, Oregon felt inspired to do the same. Since waking up in the middle of the night over a year ago with the idea to say thank you with a pie instead, Karen has given over 390 pies to friends, family, and strangers.

Giving a pie a day away was Karen’s gratitude project.

“There is something sensual about the rolling out of the dough, peeling and slicing the fresh fruit, or stirring a rich chocolate pudding. All of these things seem to say ‘It took me awhile to make this pie, and you are worth every single minute,’ “ she says.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

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Karen isn’t the only one using pie to say thanks. Idealist staff member Ero Gray recently baked a pie a week for friends and family for one year. This is his Gluten-free Blueberry Cream Cheese creation. (Photo by Chris Machuca via pie-curious.blogspot.com.)

  • Brings joy and recognition to people through food. Karen says the best thing of all was seeing that she could bring a moment of happiness to someone with a gift of a pie. “It was a remarkable feeling and such an honor,” she says.
  • Small act that makes a big difference. Karen experienced many meaningful encounters through her pies, including brightening the day of a young girl with cancer who lived in her neighborhood. “What mattered most was that I had shown up,” she says.
  • Simple to do. If you have the time and resources to put into it, making a pie a day can quickly become routine, as it did for Karen.
  • Using your passion for good. During the course of the project, Karen, who had been baking for years, sometimes questioned her impact.  “I would get a thank you card or an email days or weeks later and would know that I had,” she says.  A few people gave small gifts and two people even made her a pie as a thank you.
  • Builds community. Many of the recipients of her pies were friends and family but before long she was getting requests to bake a pie for strangers. “In this way I met people who I never might have met and was able to say that someone else wanted them to be recognized,” she says.

How you can replicate it

    1. Have a goal and stick with it. The one-year timeframe helped Karen stay on track.
    2. Accept support from others. From the start her friends and family lent resources to help. Her friend bought her 250 pins. A neighbor made stickers for each of the pies. Her husband gifted her baking supplies. And so on. “I’d never thought about how I was going to get the tins. I just started baking!” she says.
    3. If you bake it they will come. Once the dough got rolling, Karen found that friends and strangers alike started recommending people to receive her pies.
    4. Take into account the person who’s receiving the gift and their needs. If Karen knew they had a sweet tooth she would give them a chocolate cream pie. For a busy mom, she would make a quiche that could be used for a quick fix dinner.
    5. Think ahead. Karen made pie dough in batches of eight, and had cheese pre-grated for quiche, which helped to cut down the cost of time.
    6. Set a budget. The ingredients for each pie averaged out to about $5. After adding in gas for delivery, the project cost her about $2,000 over the year.
    7. Start a blog. Karen’s blog has generated almost 30,000 views in one year with people all over the world reading her posts. “I thought that blogging would be a way to share my experiences and perhaps encourage others to begin their own gratitude project,” she says.

Karen continues to give away on average a pie a week and doesn’t see an end in sight. “I’m more willing now to go out of my way to thank or recognize someone even if I don’t know them. I think goodness should be recognized and honored in some way and am happy to do it,” she says.

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Inspired to start your own gratitude project? Feel free to reach out to Karen for advice: karen [dot] amarotico [at] gmail [dot] com

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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