The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others
– Mahatma Gandhi
Saturday 22 October is Make a Difference Day. But what does that actually mean, and how can we really make a difference to others?
In Australia, there’s a small charity called Make a Difference with a big mission: helping a small group of hard-to-reach children and young people in the highest category of need. The staff and volunteers commit to helping these people wholeheartedly, doing whatever they can to help them bring out their inner strength and beauty and fulfill their dreams.
But besides fundraising or volunteering, how does the average Joe or Josephine make a difference in their daily lives? You might be wondering what you can do, given the pressures of our busy modern lives.
In this blog, I’d like to focus on 4 strategies that could set you on the path to making a difference, big or small.
Compassion is all about feeling sympathy for people who are less fortunate than us, and a desire to alleviate their suffering in some way.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion, believes that the first thing we need to do is be compassionate towards ourselves. “With self-compassion,” she says, “we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend”, rather than succumbing to self-criticism and negativity. Once we do this, Dr. Neff believes, it’s easier to feel genuine compassion and care towards other people.
Recent neuroscience research has shown strong links between improved self-compassion and mindfulness meditation, which has increased in popularity in recent years. Many workplaces realise the benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing stress and improving employee wellbeing. And research suggests that when we practice a simple compassion-related mindfulness meditation, it activates neural circuitry that makes it more likely that we’ll act in a compassionate way if the opportunity arises.
Compassion is a verb.
– Thich Nhat Han
Compassion is, of course, mostly about doing something to help others. Take, for example, the recent opening of Hummingbird House, Queensland’s first and only children’s hospice. This incredible facility epitomises the spirit of making a difference to the lives of sick children and their families and showing compassion to those who truly deserve it.
Not only is compassion good for those who receive it, it’s also been shown to be therapeutic to the giver. Recent research has suggested that compassion can have physical and psychological benefits to both parties. So it’s a win-win!
Check out the Center for Compassion & Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University for some interesting research.
By their very nature, values are important. But how often do we really consider what our values are, let alone review how closely our behaviors match those values?
Values mean different things to different people. What’s important to you? Family? Friends? The greater good of humanity? Or none of these? We are all different, and so getting in touch with our values and proactively spending some time with behaviours that match these values can be key to making a difference.
No one value is better than another (it’s in the eye of the beholder), and any small action that’s value-aligned can make a big difference. One simple strategy is to write down some of your core values and reflect on how you might live by them each day.
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted
Although this might sound slightly corny, small random acts of kindness can have a big impact. See www.randomactsofkindness.org for ideas of random acts that can make a difference. Some of these ideas are great (and they sound like fun too).
Additionally, you can become a ‘RAKtivist’ or a ‘Random Act of Kindness Activist’ and join like minded individuals from across the globe to make the world a better place.
If that’s not your cup of tea, then just do something small. Say hello to a stranger, help an old lady across the street, or hold a door open for someone (one of my personal favourites). Go on, it’ll be lovely for everyone!
We know from research that emotions are contagious. Elaine Hatfield and colleagues have extensively researched the effects of emotional contagion. They’ve found that a person’s emotions can be impacted by subtle cues such as non-verbals (e.g. smiling, body language), and this can often be more important than what a person says.
Interestingly, emotional contagion can also occur online. For example, a controversial 2014 study found that Facebook users tended to be impacted emotionally by positive or negative posts or updates. This would result in those users themselves spreading positive or negative posts online, and so a domino effect occurs.
So it’s pretty important to consider what you write online and how you interact with others on a daily basis. Even those with high levels of Emotional Intelligence (EI) can sometimes benefit from reflecting on how their actions or text might impact on others around them.
It’s also possible to immunise yourself from negative emotional contagion, by reflecting mindfully about what the source of negativity might be. Following one of the previous ‘Make a Difference’ ideas might help too.
So to summarise, simple ways of making a difference might be:
Whatever method(s) you choose, making a difference is good for you and those around you, so you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain!