The folks at Blog Action Day were prescient in their choice of "Poverty" as this year's subject. The current economic situation will mean that people already living in poverty will suffer more, and that more people will face poverty.
For many people, however, the financial crisis won't push them into true poverty, but it will make them feel much poorer - and as a consequence, make them feel anxious and powerless.
If you're one of those people, there is a way that you can both help people living in poverty and help yourself feel happier: Give to other people.
One of the most important principles I've learned from my happiness research is that although we assume that we act because of the way we feel, often we feel because of the way we act.
Therefore, if you don't like the way you're feeling, take action in the opposite direction -- it sounds simplistic, but it's almost uncannily effective. If you're feeling poor, give something away. If you're feeling powerless, take control of something. Also, one of the quickest ways to make yourself feel better is to be GRATEFUL. It's hard to feel grateful when you're thinking about your 401K's drop in value; thinking about giving to people who are worse off will remind you of how much you have to be grateful for.
When we think of doing something to help people living in poverty, it's easy to think about donating money -- and to say, "Look, I'd like to help, but I can't afford to give right now." Or to think about donating time - and to say, "I'd love to volunteer, but I've got to focus on my job hunt."
When you tell yourself that you can't afford to give, you increase your feelings of panic and danger. If you find ways to give, you will show yourself that you have enough and more, that you can be generous, that you recognize that others have needs more pressing than your own - and that will make you feel better. This act doesn't have to be huge. I have a friend who puts all her loose change in a jar at the end of the day, and when the jar is full, she gives it to her church. It's not much money, but it's constant. She's done it for years, and by now, she's probably given away a fair bit.
Maybe you can't give money or time. But that doesn't mean you can't give.
You could go through your closets and give the coats you don't use anymore to a coat drive. Or you could go through your kids' old books to see if you could give some to a group like Project Cicero, to go to a school or library in need.
Maybe you don't have any stuff to give away. You could donate blood.
Maybe you are feeling so overwhelmed that even the thought of cleaning out a closet, or figuring out how to get to the closest blood bank, is something you just can't face. You still have something to give to others - something precious, something life-changing, and you can sit right there at your desk, right now, and do it in about 25 seconds, without any further hassle. How? You can register to become an organ donor. If you support the idea of organ donation, but you haven't signed up, take this chance to put your values into action. Do it! Right now! (Register online even if you've already signed an organ donor card, to make sure you're in the online registry, which is far more accessible to doctors).
So act the way you want to feel. Acting with generosity, with gratitude, with compassion, will change your perception of your own situation. And it will improve the lives of others.
I don't mean to suggest that people should only take steps to address poverty as a way to make THEMSELVES feel better. Obviously, we have a duty to help other people, regardless of how it makes us feel.
But when you're feeling shocked and frantic, it can be hard to think about other people. Research shows that happy people are more helpful, more altruistic, and more interested in the problems of other people and society; unhappy people tend to be more defensive, self-absorbed, and isolated.
So by trying to make yourself feel happier, you are also preparing yourself to do a better job of helping others. Bolstering your own sense of calm and security will free you to think about other people. And if you can make this change in yourself by helping those living in poverty - well, that's a perfect virtuous circle.
This is a good example of the extremely important Second Splendid Truth, which holds that:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
Especially when life feels complicated, the idea of simplicity is extremely attractive. I find good ideas at On Simplicity.
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