Although it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere I go, it's still November . . . and I'm still thinking about gratitude and giving thanks. The other day, I wrote a post about giving -- focused on being a philanthropist and making financial gifts to charities. But there's another side of philanthropy: volunteering -- or what many people refer to as "giving back."
We can practice gratitude by volunteering our time and talent . . . offering vital help to people in need, making our communities better places to live, and supporting causes we care about. When we volunteer, it's pretty obvious that we're helping others -- but volunteering also benefits YOU: the volunteer.
Volunteering provides a connection to others and to the community, and helps make a difference in the lives of others.
Volunteering brings a sense of well-being. Like all the gratitude practices, volunteering makes you feel happier by countering stress, increasing self-confidence, and bringing a sense of purpose.
Volunteering encourages new learning and skill-building.
Volunteering brings a sense of personal fulfillment and purpose.
When it comes to volunteering, I think the real trick . . . is finding the RIGHT volunteer experience. Not everyone volunteers for the same reasons. In fact, there has been quite a bit of research to figure out just what motivates a person to step out and volunteer. Researchers have discovered five primary motivations for volunteering:
Values. Volunteering to satisfy personal values or humanitarian concerns.
Community concern. Volunteering to help a particular community, such as a neighborhood or ethnic group, to which the you feel attached.
Esteem enhancement. Volunteering to feel better about yourself or escape other pressures.
Understanding. Volunteering to gain a better understanding of other people, cultures or places.
Personal development. Volunteering to challenge yourself, meet new people and make new friends, or to further your career.
It turns out that your motives for volunteering don't really matter all that much, in the end. What's most important about volunteering . . . is that there is a good match between WHY you feel like volunteering and WHAT you're doing as a volunteer. The better the match, the more likely you are to enjoy and benefit from your volunteer experience -- and the more likely you are to keep doing it!
I've done a lot of volunteering in my life -- from belonging to service organizations in college to school-related activities with my kids to weeding with the Master Gardener program and serving on community boards.
None of them, though, really hit my "buttons" for volunteering. I was doing these things because I felt I should. I never really figured there could be more. I actually thought maybe I was just a selfish person . . . who didn't really like to volunteer, but it turns out the things I was doing just didn't line up well with my personal motivations for volunteering!
You may remember that right after the election last year, I decided to find out more about refugee programs in my community. I was specifically interested in ESL programs for refugees, and I was immediately welcomed into a growing group of nonprofit organizations, service agencies, and individuals hoping to make a difference for newly-arrived refugees in the Kalamazoo area. But . . . there were plenty of ESL tutors already . . . and what this group desperately needed at that time was child care for refugee children while their parents took English classes. I knew right away that that was NOT for me.
I was disappointed . . . but decided to run with my interest in literacy.
I found an adult literacy tutor certification program through the KLC, and completed the training - hoping to be matched with an adult "learner" (as we refer to our students) looking to learn to read. In February, I was paired with a student -- a man about my age -- who is really motivated and working hard to improve his reading and writing skills. We meet each week to read and write and spell and laugh together over phonics rules.
For the first time in my life, I have found a volunteer activity that must be a perfect match with my personal motivations for volunteering! I look forward to working with my learner each week; I celebrate his progress; I am totally in his corner! I feel like I'm making a difference -- and my volunteering has purpose . . . in a way weeding or chaperoning field trips or serving as Choir Boosters Treasurer never did (for me).
If you have never really found a volunteer activity that makes you feel GOOD about what you're doing, maybe you just haven't found the right volunteer activity for YOU. Take some time to evaluate your own goals, interests, and motivations - because it's different for everyone.
And . . . follow your heart!
Attention KNITTERS and seekers-of-peace! It's time to sign up for this year's Peace Project. You can read all about it here. I've already purchased my pattern, and I have some yarn picked out. Although I don't plan to complete the project during the month of December, I will be following along with the Peace Prompts each day. Because we can all use a little peace in our lives!
Today, as I make my pies and chop ingredients for the stuffing and pull out my festive tablecloth, I'm also continuing to think about how I practice gratitude.
For the last twodays, I've been blogging about "gratitude tasks" -- how performing simple things like writing gratitude lists and thank you notes can help you feel better and improve your general outlook.
Today, let's go further with another "task" that also turns out to be good for you . . . philanthropy.
Because philanthropy . . . is a topic near and dear to my heart.
You see, my convoluted career path led me to philanthropy. (Maybe someday I'll tell you about that path . . . from teacher to CPA to foundation director. But not today.) For 17 years, I had the great fortune of running a large, private women's foundation in Grand Rapids. It turned out to be a dream job -- and also one of the greatest learning experiences I've ever had.
Mostly, though, my job turned me into a philanthropist . . . certainly as a professional, but - more importantly - as an individual.
Anyone can be a philanthropist! Although I think most of us associate folks like Andrew Carnegie, John Paul Getty, or Bill Gates with the term "philanthropist," that's selling the rest of us short. You are a philanthropist no matter how much or how how little or how often you give a donation to a charitable organization.
I think that's an important thing to remember. Financial contributions of any size make a huge difference to charitable organizations! Not only do all of those little gifts add up to make a big impact -- but they also signal your emotional support, your belief in a cause, your desire to fight for a better world. . . to an organization that lives and breathes their mission every day.
Giving . . . makes you a philanthropist.
Give. Give. Give. Because it matters. It's the right thing to do. And it'll make you feel good, too.
(Okay. Now just let me put a higher platform on my soapbox for a second.)
How do you choose which organization to give TO?
Here's my short answer: Follow Your Heart!
What causes are you especially concerned about? Water quality? Domestic violence? Disease awareness? Public education? Health care access? Constitutional rights? Hunger? Arts and culture? Animal adoption? Refugee services? Leadership development? Homelessness? Gun violence? Heck . . . the list goes on and on and on. Figure out which issues are most important to you. Narrow your scope.
Do a little research. Are there organizations in your own community that are working on your focus-issues? Start with their websites or annual reports. Maybe give them a call and schedule a visit. Attend an event they sponsor. Basically -- get close and see what they do in your community. (Note that I did NOT start with a visit to GuideStar or Charity Navigator; more on that later.)
If you're interested in theses issues beyond your community - or if you're interested in more national or global issues - expand your net a bit with your research. It might be harder to get personal, community-level information from organizations beyond your backyard, but you can still learn about what they do and who they serve through their websites and annual reports.
Mostly, though. Figure out what matters most to you -- and GIVE.
Now. . .
Let's talk a minute about sites like GuideStar and Charity Navigator -- sites designed to provide good, solid information about the inner-workings of charities. If you are looking to make a significant personal gift (let's say . . . over $10,000) or if you work for a foundation, then - by all means - do your due diligence and take a look at the financial statements and 990s of charities you're considering.
But. If you're just making regular, personal charitable donations of $25, $100, or even $1,000 . . . skip that step. Seriously. Just give.
And I could go on and on (and on) about the evils of equating operational overhead with poor nonprofit management (because I would need a stage-sized soapbox for that one) -- but, instead, I'm going to leave you with this most excellent TED talk from activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta. (I know it's 18 minutes on the day before Thanksgiving, but this is totally worth watching if you really want to change the world.)
As a child, my mom taught me the value of a well-written thank you note . . . and those early lessons stuck with me for life.
Although many people look at it as a chore, I actually enjoy writing thank you notes. I've always loved sending (and receiving) mail. I love to choose my pen and the just-right piece of stationery. I get to think about the person I'm writing to and formulate the words I'm going to use. And I get to express my heartfelt gratitude.
It's also the right thing to do! According to Margaret Shepherd in The Art of the Handwritten Note, it takes some effort to express your gratitude properly. Shepherd tells us, “Your thank-you note should recapture the smile, handshake or hug you would give the giver in person, and offer it in a form that can be read and reread.” She also describes the five characteristics of a well-written thank you note: generous, specific, prompt, succinct, and personal.
Apparently, writing thank you notes is good for your brain, too! Research shows that written acts of gratitude have long-term effects on feelings of wellbeing and reduced depression. Performing "gratitude tasks" (including acknowledging gifts through handwritten thank you notes) helps our brains to feel "extra thankful." Dr. Christian Jarrett, in the Science of Us, talked about a brain-scanning study published in NeuroImage, “which brings us a little closer to understanding why these [gratitude] exercises have these effects. The results suggest that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains are still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude tasks work, at least in part, because they have a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits.” (It's that "vicious circle" I talked about yesterday again!)
Finally, hand writing thank you notes in today's age of Facebook, emojis, and text messages is just . . . cool! If you get a handwritten anything in your mailbox, don't you just rip right into it? (I know I do.) Sending a heart-felt, handwritten message to someone is the best way to express you gratitude. According to Florence Isaacs in Just a Note to Say, “When you write, there is no response to distract you from reaching within and exploring exactly what you feel and want to say. There is no mechanical equipment to act as a barrier." So . . . it's just you . . . and your words!
This month, as part of my gratitude practice, I decided to be intentional about writing thank you notes. I'm usually very good at writing notes when I receive a gift -- so this month, I'm trying to really dig a little deeper and write notes to people who've given me things that aren't necessarily . . . things. So far this month I've written notes to a neighbor who serves on our school board, to my art teacher, to the underpaid-and-overworked Master Gardener coordinator, and (thanks to a bit of digging from my sister) to my sewing teacher from junior high school! (And I'm not finished yet.)
How about YOU? Who can you send a thank you note to in this season of Thanksgiving? (It's good for you!)
I've been intentionally focusing on gratitude for many years.
It started when I was in the middle of chemo . . . when I didn't feel terribly good and the days seemed really long and I worried about my future and felt like I had lost my center.
I started keeping a list of all the things in my day that were good; things that connected me to myself -- and the world around me.
I kept doing it.
It turns out that one of the easiest "first steps" in developing a gratitude practice is . . . noticing. Simply noticing and acknowledging the things in our lives that we are grateful for can foster feelings of contentment and joy, respect for what we have, and connection to the world around us.
I know that intentionally noticing and acknowledging things we're grateful for each day is powerful because it's kind of like . . . a vicious circle. The more we notice the good things in our lives, the more we are able to notice the good things in our lives. Y'know? And that creates an ever-expanding circle of good.
The things we list don't have to be the big things (although that's often where we start) -- like family and housing and health and jobs. They can also be little things we just . . . notice . . . when we start paying attention. Bird song. The scent of hand lotion. The flow-y way my pen writes. The fact that I hit a green light just when I needed it most.
I decided to try a new approach to my gratitude list-making this month -- building on that "vicious circle" analogy.
I grabbed a piece of illustration board, and starting with a heart, I drew some outwardly-expanding lines. Each day, I write down my gratitude list for the day within the lines. Now, I'm starting to use my watercolor pencils and a waterbrush to bring color to my list.
Acknowledging my gratitude makes me feel good. I share my good-feelings with people around me. And then they feel good. And they share their good-feelings with the people around them.
Start a list.
Let's spread gratitude's good-feelings all around.
"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." -- William Arthur Ward
I know that many of us are busy this month . . . paying attention to gratitude and putting together daily "gratitude lists." Creating these daily lists is a great way to notice - and write down - things in our everyday lives that we might otherwise take for granted. In fact, gratitude lists are beneficial in helping us develop healthier, happier, more meaningful lives.
Want to take your gratitude journey even further? Here are three more simple things you can do to practice gratitude this month:
1 -- Give one compliment every day -- either to a person directly, or by sharing your appreciation for something. ("That's a great scarf!" or "What a beautiful view!")
2 -- Vow not to complain, criticize, or gossip for a week. Once you break the habit, you'll find more positive energy in your life.
3 -- Sound genuinely happy when people call you on the phone, or when you meet them face to face. Other people feel valued when you greet them positively.
Today's post is part of Three on Thursday. To read more lists, be sure to check in over at Carole's!
It's November . . . a month that we typically associate with thanks and gratitude and abundance.
But, y'know? Sometimes it's challenging to keep gratitude foremost in our minds. Sometimes it's just too much. And sometimes, well . . . let's just say it's been a bit of a rough year around here.
So I'm working hard to find the good.
Yesterday, it was just a small thing.
Yesterday, I realized how grateful I am that most of the trees in my yard are conifers, or are deciduous trees that drop their leaves right in my garden beds where I use them as mulch. (I am also a firm believer in mowing fallen leaves into your lawn as fertilizer -- a Master Gardener Smart Gardening practice.)
So, yeah. Yesterday, I was grateful that this huge pile of crunchy, fallen leaves . . . isn't mine to deal with!
We've lived in this house for nearly 12 years now. It's so weird to think that it could possibly have been so long ago . . . that we moved to Kalamazoo in a whirlwind . . . whipped into a frenzy from our first corporate downsizing* . . . trying to find a home for our soon-to-be high school freshman and new 6th grader!
Brian and I actually "found" our house while looking at options online. The two things that sold us on its charms - right through the computer screen - were two things I still really love about our house.
1 -- I love the curved brick fireplace in my living room (although not so much with the screen. . . but JoJo's love of "sticks" of all kind make it absolutely essential).
2 -- I love the library! This little room is right at the front of the house, with a bay window on one wall and this wall of shelves on another. (Before my Kon-Mari craze, those shelves were packed FULL of books, I'll have you know. Now . . . there are whole, empty shelves in there.) This room - which may have been The Factor that convinced us to buy the house -- is where I spend most of my time (I'm sitting in it now. . . ) as it's quiet and comfortable for reading, knitting, and working.
Once we moved in, I loved making the house our home!
3 -- I love all of our big windows and the views they provide, like this one in my living room - looking out into my backyard. (Of course, these are the same windows I'm whining about now . . . as we're getting those replacement quotes.)
4 -- I love my garden. When we first moved in, I must admit that I was completely frustrated and overwhelmed by the extreme "cross-slope" of the yard. But, over the years, I've learned how to live with it and sort of . . . claim it as my own!
5 -- I love my kitchen. It's big with plenty of space for cooking and gathering together. (And it's even nicer now, with new appliances that all match!) (Maybe someday I'll get around to switching out the cabinet hardware, too.)
6 -- I love my front-porch view. Because of that same cross-slope I still whine about from time to time, I do have a pretty fabulous view from the top of our hill. And, because my house faces west, I get to enjoy fabulous sunsets -- and impressive approaching storms, too.
7 -- I love that our house is comfortable -- not fussy. We have plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the things we like to do. Our house is the kind of house you can kick back in without worry.
8 -- I love that my house reflects our personalities. You could say our "decorating style" is just kind of an eclectic mix of . . . stuff we like.
9 -- I love the location of our house. We are close to pretty much everything -- yet secluded enough that I can create a wildlife habitat in my own backyard! Five minutes from the highway . . . AND a yard full of woodland creatures. You really can't beat that!
10 -- But mostly what I love about my house . . . is the comfort and warmth and happy memories we've created within it! It really is . . . a very, very, very fine house.
How about YOU? What do you love about your house?
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