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You Can Change the World

May 28, 2020 12:30PM ● By by Meg Reilly
The comedian Bill Maher has quipped, “I don’t know it for a fact…I just know it’s true.” If you’ve always had a gut feeling that people who seem to be a little kinder than most—a little more grateful or caring toward others—also seem to be happier people, you’re right. But unlike Maher’s joke, there actually are facts that back this up, and the good news is you don’t just have to be born that way. You can make small changes in the way you act outwardly that will benefit you inwardly. They might even change the world.

Martin Seligman, considered the founding father of positive psychology, began his work in the 1960s and 1970s by developing a theory of “learned helplessness,” which he soon connected to depression. His work had profound social implications. Think of someone you know who gave up on themselves because they were conditioned to think there was no chance of changing their circumstances, whether economic, educational, social or personal. They just stopped trying. Maybe you’ve even felt this way. Happily, Seligman went on to theorize that if learned helplessness can lead to depression, maybe we can learn to be resilient and that can lead to optimism. Dr. Seligman is now the leader of the Positive Psychology Center (PPC) at the University of Pennsylvania, which has the goal of creating a science and profession that heals psychological damage (the crux of his early research) and builds strengths to enable us to achieve the best things in life (the focus of his last several decades of work).

The PPC focuses on three areas. The first one is positive experiences, and this is where your ability to create change in your life comes in. The second one is positive individual traits–that person mentioned earlier who always seems to look on the sunny side of life. The third one is bold and expansive: creating positive institutions, workplaces and communities.

So how does this work? 

Seph Fontane Pennock has some ideas. He is a founder of PostitivePsychology.com, a website where he curates an immense library of commentary, advice, tests and coursework on topics related to positive emotions, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion and much more. Here are some suggestions Pennock offers on his website to strengthen gratitude:

Count your blessings. Yup, the most old-fashioned one of them all. Take a moment or two and list three things that you are grateful for. That’s it! Do it often – daily or at least four to five times a week. 

Send a handwritten thank you note. It takes a little time and you don’t type it out or text it – you use your own hand, real paper and a stamp. It can be to anyone for anything. Do it once a month.

Remember a negative event. This may sound counterintuitive but the idea is to remind yourself that you’ve had times that seemed bad and this is not one of them. Plus, you got through it!

Say thank you in a specific, meaningful way. We’ve grown so accustomed to the quick emoji (smile, thumbs up, etc.) response or even the cursory verbal, “Thanks.” Instead you could text something just a little bit longer, as appropriate, like, “Thanks for the feedback. Feels good to be seen.” Or at the drive-up window, look the server in the eye for just one whole second and say, “Thanks for my coffee. It smells great.” 

Keep a gratitude journal. There are hundreds of little practices you can do to incorporate kindness or compassion toward others in your daily life, and while that certainly pertains to the benefit of the recipient, there is a solid and growing body of research on the physical and emotional benefits to the actor, the giver, to you as you act kindly toward others. 

Acts of kindness and moments of gratitude repeatedly return upon the giver. Caring makes us feel good. St. Francis said, “It is in giving that we receive.” In fact, it is in connecting to others that we often feel most alive ourselves. Our (very) human natures vibrate with the uplift that comes with caring – caring for a person, for a cause, for an ideal. And while this may not come naturally or easily at first, it’s worth the effort. It takes practice to make a change but as Martin Seligman said, “When we take the time to notice the things that go right, it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day.” 

When you make the effort to make someone else’s world a little better, even if it’s just for a moment or two, and you do it simply because it’s a kind thing to do – no expectation of anything back – something very wonderful begins to happen. You do get it back. When you notice how that feels good to you, you begin to understand the wisdom of Gandhi’s admonition to be the change you wish to see in the world. When you are the change, your world changes, and your world really is the whole world. 

Throughout time, people have known this, maybe not for a fact, but they just knew it was true. Six thousand years after Lao Tzu said, “Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world,” Bill Watterson wrote in Calvin and Hobbes, “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon…everything’s different.”

Meg Reilly, MS, CH, can be reached at MegReilly360.com and Lectio360.com.
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