You won’t have any difficulty at all finding misery at the moment. Any number of words or phrases can start a conversation that will happily take you down Depressing Alley, which is a dead end by the way. The only way out is to scale a very awkward wall, but you may not have the energy to do so as you may have lost the will to live in the meantime.

I’m talking about topics such as unemployment, the general downturn, government spending cuts, crime, the property slump, the banking crisis, John O’Donoghue’s expenses, FAS expenses, quiet town centres, the health service; I could fill a whole page with ideas. I wish I could tell you that I don’t get involved in such recession rhetoric but you can’t help yourself. You don’t mean to do it but next thing you find yourself in the middle of one of these woeful chats. It would be very wrong to say that they are boring conversations, they rarely are.

The problem is that they can make you quite angry and they also stir up those nasty negative feelings that I spend so much of my time trying to avoid. Then you have to get yourself out of it without appearing rude or uninterested. I’m ashamed to say I failed at one such conversation recently and, uncharacteristically, my frustration ended up with me being downright unpleasant which I’m not proud of.

Angry Nichola!

I was on the phone and the conversation was getting more depressing by the minute. Now the phone in my office has a timer on it and suddenly I saw 23 minutes flashing on the digital display. That was the trigger. I knew those 23 minutes were lost forever and I could see them rapidly turning into 33 minutes of misery if I didn’t put a stop to it. I heard myself saying, “Look, this is the middle of a working day, I’ve been talking to you now for 23 minutes, and I really don’t have the time for this.” I admit it was tactless and stupidly self important as well. What I should have done was politely stopped it after 5 minutes and all would have been well. If it had been a happy conversation I wouldn’t even have looked at the time.

There is, however, an antidote to all of this depression and that is to get out and just do something nice for someone. It will make you feel good and the recipient will also feel good. While many people think it’s a good idea, when it comes down to it we have a tendency to think that we have to join charitable organisations, commit to hours of time that we don’t have or do something large and significant.

Small things are important

While big charitable gestures certainly have their place, we are all individually capable of small things that collectively make the world a whole lot better. If you committed to even one random act of kindness a week for the next twelve months then that’s 52 more kind deeds in the world straight away. Acts of kindness don’t have to massive. You could start with little things like letting someone go ahead of you in a queue or letting an extra car or two out in a stream of traffic. I went to a meeting the other night and someone turned up with a container of lovely buns. It was simple and yet really thoughtful. Volunteer an hour a week to help someone to clean their house or give some money, no matter how small; that one always goes down a treat. However I have found that it’s easy to dump some coins into the jar of the homeless person and walk on by; try actually looking at the person and smiling as you do it the next time. If you are cutting your grass, then offer to cut the neigbour’s lawn too (that’s if you are talking to them of course!)

The trick is to keep it simple. While it is very noble to think that you should take an entire refugee family into your home and help them make a better life it might be impractical. While you might dream of raising millions of euro to find a cure for cancer, you might never hit on the right fundraising idea and end up doing nothing. The other mindset we have about helping people or doing random acts of kindness is that we feel it should always be for ‘the poor’ or ‘those in need’. Well, rich people need love too! If you start thinking that people have to fulfill a criteria or there are several boxes to be ticked before you can do something, then you might as well give up straight away.

Overcoming suspicion!

By way of definition, a random act of kindness is a selfless act performed by a person or persons wishing to either assist or cheer up an individual or in some cases an animal. There will generally be no reason other than to make people smile, or be happier. Sometimes we do them spontaneously and at other times they are planned in advance. The main problem is the suspicion that surrounds them. Sometimes when we attempt to do something nice for other human beings they immediately think they are being set up to be taken advantage of. When you explain that you would just like to help them for the sake of helping them, you can often appear to be twice the nut they thought you were to begin with. My advice is to ignore and persevere. For the odd person here and there who will dismiss your acts as weird, you will inevitably bring joy to several others.

Of course it is not a new idea at all. A radio DJ called Brent Farris in California has been sending his listeners out to do Random Acts of Kindness for over 10 years in a once a week slot. They include things like tipping the person at the McDonalds Drive through window $100. That’s a fairly decent act of kindness, but you get the idea. In 2006, a Free Hugs Campaign was made popular on You Tube; that could involve an invasion of personal space so please be careful. But it was all the way back in 1983 when peace activist Anne Herbert is credited with coining the phrase “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”. It’s appeared on many a car bumper sticker since.

As it happens there is an old Jewish saying that sums it all up quite nicely:

If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap.

If you want to be happy for a day, go fishing.

If you want to be happy for a month, go on a honeymoon.

If you want to be happy for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want to be happy for a lifetime, help other people.