Happiness by the Numbers

How I found ways to improve my mood and sense of purpose each and every day.

I make my living as an actor, and like many actors in New York City I sometimes work at medical schools portraying patients with various medical conditions. Part of the job entails evaluating the communication skills of the doctors and medical students. The actors provide written and verbal feedback how the students might improve expressing empathy, understanding, listening and eye contact.

A few weeks ago at a medical school here in the city, I was assigned to portray a woman who suffers from a negative attitude. By the end of the eight-hour assignment, I found myself pondering my own attitude and communication skills, and had to admit I definitely had room for improvement.

I must be honest — I have had occasion to flip off someone who is driving way too fast and too close to me in a crosswalk, even taking on the persona of Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy, yelling “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” but most days I work to diffuse daily frustrations and find the better parts of myself to present to the outside world.

I utilize public transportation daily throughout the Boroughs, and cross paths with many people in extreme poverty. I do try to acknowledge the people as individuals, offer a smile or small talk, sometimes a hug, make eye contact instead of looking away pretending they do not exist. A guide I use for myself: if I have earned money that day then I can give someone a dollar or two. Mostly I try to help people without shelter, especially impoverished older women, and persons missing limbs. This is not an easy city for the disabled or those lacking resources.

I read about a woman who collected old purses and packed them with snacks, fruit, feminine hygiene products, a few dollars, and handed them out. I liked the idea and tried it. I gathered some purses from home and the local Salvation Army, packed them with food, a few dollars, and some panty-liners. The responses I received were different from the ones that had inspired me. None of the women I approached wanted extra things to lug around and refused the purses. Most were suspicious of the gift, and me. Some yelled for me to get away from them. I also noticed that many of the women were missing teeth or had gum disease, and would have had great difficulty eating the apples and protein bars I packed. But the money was appreciated.

* * *

I have come up with a new challenge for myself — something I can do daily in my own neighborhood or wherever the MTA takes me. When I leave my Brooklyn apartment I deliberately focus on my immediate surroundings, on each person I pass or encounter in a CVS, a bus or subway station. I look for people who can use a helping hand or kind word. I have done it before, but now I am keeping a mental tally with a goal of increasing the numbers each day. Some days provide more opportunities than others, of course; but, it is working. It feels great helping a woman carry her packages out of the train station or a parent with a stroller who is navigating those long, crowded staircases in the subway stations with multiple children in tow. People appreciate it, and these are very simple things to do:

Open doors

Open conversations

Be vigilant

Actively listen

Work toward increasing the tally each day.

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