Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. -Albert Einstein
CAPP Final Project by Libby Van Buren
It’s difficult to overlook the severity of the homelessness problem in San Francisco. When I walk out of my apartment in Pacific Heights, a gentrified neighborhood that’s miles away from the dicier areas you would associate with soup kitchens and homeless shelters, I run into at least three people who didn’t sleep in beds last night. A few years ago, a disoriented homeless man smashed my dining room window to climb into my second floor condo and was arrested outside my bedroom door. My story isn’t an anomaly; everyone agrees that homelessness in San Francisco is a glaring and heartbreaking issue, but no one is exactly sure how to address it.
According to a nationwide census in 2015, San Francisco was counted as the second most densely populated homeless population in the country right beyond New York City. But San Francisco has many more “chronically homeless” meaning people who aren’t just temporarily down on their luck but permanently living on the streets. There are more people unsheltered each night in San Francisco than any other city in the States.
Most people want to do something to help but are uncomfortable handing over spare change— it can be a clumsy interaction and it’s unclear where that dollar will be spent. This project aims to help with that problem: Pocketful of Sunshine is a small envelope that includes five $5 gift cards to Subway or McDonalds. Slip the small wallet inside your bag and you have easy access to a gift card that promises a warm meal to someone who needs it.
For Christmas I gifted these envelopes to ten friends and family members. Each case came with a note:
It’s nice to be nice
Give these $5 gift cards to strangers who are down on their luck. If it feels right when the cards are gone, refill the envelope and find more people who could use a warm meal.
If you want sunshine, share sunshine. If you want love, share it. You’ll find that it will come right back to you.
At first, the goal of this project was to try to help address homelessness in a positive way, but Positive Psychology teaches us that altruism benefits the giver more than the receiver. There are many studies that link benevolent actions with personal happiness and health. Stephen Post, author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People” has made a career of studying the effects of altruism on health and longevity. He’s found that givers experience less aches and pains: giving promotes health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. He’s found that consistent altruism has a “stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church; it means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking”.
Another fascinating study analyzed brain scans of nineteen subjects who gave small donations to a variety of causes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that small act of kindness lit up the pleasure center- the same area of the brain associated with euphoria. For your brain, altruism feels like good sex or delicious food.
Positive Psychology also tells us that habits emerge from repeated behavior: neural networks fire together after consistently repeated behaviors. How easy is it, then, to create a habit of altruism? My hope is that this project affects at least one person positively and gives them the opportunity to reap the benefits of consistent altruism.
Acts of kindness are contagious (Lyubomirsky, Tkach & Sheldon, 2004; Buchanan & Bardi, 2009; Otake et al,, 2006.
Contemplating altruism leads to immunity boost (McClelland & Kirchnit, 1988)
Giving to others releases endorphins (Moll, et al., 2006a; Moll, et al,.2006)
Hill, Kashmir. “Why does San Francisco seem to have such a huge homeless problem?” Fusion, 19 February 2016. Web. <http://fusion.net/story/148372/san-francisco-homelessness/>.
Linden, David J Ph.D. “This Is Your Brain on Charitable Giving.” Psychology Today, 31 August 2011. Web. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compass-pleasure/201108/is-your-brain-charitable-giving>.
Post, Stephen. Why Good Things Happen To Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life By The Simple Act of Giving. New York City: Broadway Books. Print.