At a recent dinner party, my brother, sister-in-law, mother, and my husband and I found ourselves musing on one of the two taboo topics that came up: this one was politics. Political party preferences aside, we thought that many people are just plain unhappy. Whether it is the economy (“stupid”), the war, poverty, abortion, gay marriage, religion, or Occupy Wall Street protestors, many Americans take issue with something that, in their minds, is wrong. Often they will belabor the point, as was the case this past weekend where the arced curve of Sarasota Bay was dotted by several dozen protestors of one flavor or another.
Curious if I could snatch their intent from our drive-by, I gave a cursory glance at their posters and signs, and instead scrutinized their faces for cues as to their purpose and core message. I took psychologist and facial expression expert Paul Eckman’s approach to try to discern their micro expressions, those telltale facial giveaways that showcase universal human emotions.
My next thought was:
Wouldn't it be great if these folks could channel all of their ‘pushing against’ energy into something more purposeful, like volunteering at a soup kitchen, taking a plate of chocolate chip cookies to someone who sits for an hour in a recliner receiving a chemo drip, mentoring at the Boys and Girls Club, or making homemade Hallmark-like cards to give to those at an Adult Day Center?
The signs ranged from end the war to peace on earth to take over Wall Street, and my crude and very quick calculation for the cost of the materials and quantified time spent on a minimum wage scale, revealed roughly $243.67.
So, what are people really saying? I believe, at the core, two things: 1) They feel disempowered. 2) Being engaged in social relationships with a common purpose feels good.
What to do? Sure, we can make signs and meet up with likeminded people and stand outside on a glorious 76‑degree day in southwest Florida and bob our signs up and down; this certainly meets the social criteria of the second need – a Maslowian sense of belonging and relationship cultivation. But I bet we could do more to feel better to assuage the human ego that has taken one too many hits.
When we take positive action, we feel good. When we act, and another directly benefits from either an altruistic benevolence or because we believe in our heart of hearts that it's the right thing to do for the collective all of us, then we start to feel really good! Sign-waving at a crowded intersection is not well-being user-friendly. In fact, it is counter-productive; it usually startles people, confuses them, or angers them.
The protestors want to feel good; the drive-bys want to feel good; heck, we all want to feel good. As our vehicle crawled (many gapers), the sign carriers spoke animatedly with one another. They smiled, laughed, and nodded in apparent affirmation to each other. They were like the Whos in Whoville: although the Grinch had taken their very last crumb, they still sang and swayed together, rocking arm in arm. Yet, their printed messages belied their human facial expressions and body language.
My husband, Geoff, and I determined that if people did not collectively cry out against all of what was wrong, did not bemoan and protest in blame, anger, and bitterness. Yet instead, repurposed their thoughts and emotions, and counted on their own abilities and strengths to bring about well-being, people would feel “Tony-the-Tiger-great.”
What if we focused on not taking Wall Street but taking into account our own ability to seek solutions, thrive, flourish, and ultimately feel empowered? And “What can I do – what ability can I count on - right now, right here to make life better for me and another?”
Positive psychology Pied Piper and colleague Marty Seligman, in his recent book Flourish, suggests that we do one unexpected thing that would be an off-the-charts day topper. Marty wrote in his book that, for $10, he inspired and increased the well-being of dozens of people in less than 15 minutes. How? He stood in a long line at the post office, the day after a 1¢ postage stamp increase, and bought 1000 one-cent stamps. He then handed them out for free to all who still stood in the snake-like line, until all of the people and the stamps were gone.
Can you imagine the elevated mood and soaring energy (Postal!) that cost only ten dollars?
The galvanized action we take for ourselves and for others, where there is a personal accountability and a direct benefit to another, counts a lot. Let’s gather together by putting aside the banner markers, and take up mentoring, card making, and baking. Let’s consider taking into account our ability to leverage $243.67 worth of feel-good well-being for former sign wavers and drive-bys.