As a creature of habit (something I'm fairly sure I get from my Grandad), I've thrown even myself by deciding to do a second blog post this month. But following an unexpected experience with my New Year's resolution this year I felt compelled to write.
Now I know that, given my imminent move to Florida, my resolution should probably have been along the lines of 'get abs of steel ready for the beach' or 'stop spending money on ridiculous, unnecessary things', but something that happened at the end of 2007 stopped that.
On 31st December 2007 I was at a party when Don't Stop The Music by Rihanna came on. At this point I had danced Latin and Ballroom between the ages of seven and sixteen, but had stopped when it started affecting my wild social life and vowed to go back when I passed my driving test.
Those of you who know me well will know that I didn't pass my driving test until the day I moved to Coventry and so never did go back to my dance classes.
When that song came on at the very end of 2007 Daisy Duck- another dancer- grabbed my hand and launched into a cha cha cha with me.
I loved every second and remembered how much I loved dancing- and was hugely encouraged by my Essex Knight who insisted that I should start it up again.
That, therefore, became my resolution for 2008.
That decision was far more significant than I ever could have realised.
It took a lot of research but after a series of googling, phone calls, texts and emails I was informed that as a Coventry student I was entitled to dance for The University Of Warwick- and that I should contact their team captain for details.
I did, and it changed the entire course of my university experience. It took over my world- it became far more important to me than my degree, introduced me to some of the most amazing people I have ever met and is one of the things that I am proudest of about my four years in the Midlands.
That resolution not only changed things for me in itself, but it also inspired me to make an original, exciting and realistic resolution every year.
So since then I have started a diary (which is now in its fifth year), got a graduate job, worked in five different countries and learnt to juggle.
This year my resolution came to me in December.
I was struggling up the huge hill that I lived on with Boo's family, breathless with the effort of pushing the buggy and managing to say 'yes you're right that is a car' to my excited two year old charge, when a man walked past me- a total stranger in his seventies at least. As he passed he smiled and said 'I hope you don't mind me saying but you are beautiful. Pretty as a painting.'
What a lovely thing to do. That passing comment made me smile for the rest of the day, and I found I suddenly had plenty of energy for the trek up the hill.
As I continued toward the Under Threes Club I started thinking. I probably think positive things about people around fifty times a day.
I spend so much of my time thinking how beautiful people are, how nice their clothes are or how thoughtful they are. Yet I very rarely say them out loud.
I've had endless conversations with Pumbaa about how stunningly beautiful Minnie Mouse is- how many times have I actually told her? Aside from when she was trying on wedding dresses, very rarely actually.
Cowgirl Jessie is officially the nicest, most thoughtful, empathetic and kind person I have ever met. The Irish Prince knows that because we frequently discuss the fact. Have I ever discussed it with Jessie herself? Of course not.
Pumbaa is the most down to earth, funny-but-totally-unaware-of-it and loyal friend I have ever been lucky enough to have. My mum often comments on this. To me. Not to Pumbaa.
I'm sure I'm not alone here: you do it too, don't you?
So I decided that this year my resolution would be to start saying the nice things that I think aloud.
Then on 3rd January I bought my favourite magazine and discovered that the message in the editor's letter was 'Spread The Joy'. She asked her readers to join her in an experiment and attempt to shift the national mood from misery to happiness. She then quoted some celebrities on their amazing ideas of how to brighten someone's day.
Following that Buzz Lightyear- one of the most glamorous people I have ever met (and she lived in a tent when I knew her)- posted two life-affirming, world-cheering ideas from different articles that she had read on my Facebook wall.
I felt like the world was coming at me from all directions telling me: make the world a happier place Rebecca.
This, combined with the fact that I am moving to Disney World this year (in 16 sleeps)- where it will be my job to make every day magical- led me to change my resolution and participate in the kind of social experiment that Glamour's Editor suggested.
Now I don't want you to think that because I actively decided to start being nicer to people it cannot be sincere. I like to think that I am quite a nice person anyway: I had made the resolution to start saying nice things out loud before I even bought Glamour, and know that Buzz only sent me those articles because she knew they were both things that I would be likely to do. I would only ever give compliments that I genuinely mean (I wasn't complimentary about every wedding dress that Minnie Mouse tried on- trust me) and I already love making people smile- if I didn't I wouldn't be going to work in Disney.
I didn't set out to complete a certain number of nice things per day or per week, nor did I plan when and where I would do each thing- I just tried to be more aware of opportunities to make people smile, and instead of being scared or embarrassed to do them- grabbed the chances and ran with them.
I often found myself stopping and thinking: is this weird?
Then imagined somebody doing the same thing for me, and found every time that I wouldn't find it weird at all, it would just make me smile.
In hindsight I have divided them into three general categories in order to be able to explain them clearly....
1. Saying Things Aloud
As I've already mentioned this all started with my vow to say the nice things that I so often think aloud. I realised by doing this that I do tell people how beautiful they look on a night out, but rarely say any of the other positive things I think....
a) I know that this probably doesn't count as out loud but I noticed that I leave each of the clubs that I take Boo to every week thinking about the wonderful job that the staff do. If I feel a bit stupid at Rhyme Time sometimes- how must the lady who has to face a room full of the scariest type of human- mothers- and lead them in If You're Happy And You Know It feel?
I always made the effort to go and say that we enjoyed it at the end but even I couldn't find the words to say 'You're amazing at your job' out loud without crossing into uncomfortably cheesy territory.
So instead I made them each a card and wrote in it that I thought they did a wonderful job and hoped they knew how much they were appreciated. I then left them on counters in the various groups to be found after we had left.
b) I saw a lady in town one day wearing a beautiful red jumper and the second I saw it my mind shouted 'Wow. She looks gorgeous.' So, remembering my vow, instead of thinking it and walking away, I told her. She reacted in the very British way of 'Oh this? It's nothing! Just threw it on before I took the kids to school', but then went on to have a full conversation with me about each of her children and walked away with a huge grin.
I was once told- a few years ago now- that sometimes I can look very judgemental and, to be frank, a bit of a bitch- because I tend to look people up and down when I see them for the first time. I was absolutely horrified and certain that it wasn't true, so I started watching out for it. I soon realised that I do do that, but actually what was going through my head was 'I wish I had skin like that' or 'I love her shoes'. I imagine that if I had walked away without explaining to that lady that I loved her jumper she probably would have thought the same of me.
Perhaps telling everyone my thoughts is my solution.
2. Random Acts Of Kindness
I have learnt this month that there are opportunities for random actions that make people smile all the time. And just going for it results in both you and the recipient smiling for the rest of the day. I have done quite a few of these, but thought I'd share with you my favourites....
a) This first one I actually did before Christmas and before I had even made my Say Nice Things Aloud resolution, but I want to mention it because the reaction was brilliant.
As I drove toward the toll booth on my drive between Essex and Surrey, what I thought was a lovely idea washed over me. I had my rush of doubts: is that acceptable? Then thought of the smile it would bring me were it the other way round and decided to just go for it. I pulled up to the booth and wound down my window, then passed my two pound coins (yes two pounds- daylight robbery) and a large chocolate coin over to the man working there.
He looked at the three coins and frowned. Then I watched as realisation spread across his face and his mouth broke into a huge smile- think Julia Roberts in the Press Conference scene in Notting Hill- and the normally miserable, bored-looking toll man gushed- yes, gushed- 'thank you so so so much! Merry Christmas.'
That reaction filled my tummy with a warm fuzzy feeling that lasted all the way back to Surrey.
b) The next one was suggested in Glamour Magazine by James Corden. I was in the queue for a coffee in Costa when a lady joined the end and stood behind me. Just as I was about to order I asked her what she was having and proceeded to order and pay for her coffee as well.
Her reaction was equally spirit-lifting. She was nothing short of delighted.
She started by rejecting my offer, but I firmly told her that I really wanted to do it and she gracefully accepted and skipped over to tell her husband with a wide smile and a new spring in her step. James suggested that if they object you should suggest that they buy for the person behind them, and see how far back you can get it to go. I was unable to do this because I had chosen (perhaps foolishly?) to do it in a quiet store on a Sunday morning- but even what I did was massively gratifying and kept us both- I'm sure- smiling all day.
c) This one also involves food but I promise it's the last one that does.
I was in Boots one Thursday afternoon when a lady stormed in and demanded that her prescription be organised quickly because her bus was on its way. The staff member calmly and politely informed her that unfortunately prescriptions take at least twenty minutes, so she would either have to wait or come back another day.
This suggestion was greeted with all sorts of obscenities that I won't repeat, and the argument went on for at least the ten minutes that I was in there: the staff member remaining patient and polite whilst all kinds of abuse was being thrown at her.
I checked the time and, knowing that The Scary Lady (as she soon became known to me and Boo) would be in there for at least twenty minutes, went to another shop and did various jobs before returning half an hour later.
I got into the prescription queue and when Mandy- the patient staff member- called me over, I explained that I had seen what had happened and that I didn't want her to leave work today disheartened with the public and hating her job, so I had bought her a creme egg to remind her how good she was and that some of us are quite nice. I didn't say it in a dramatic, cheesy, American way; but in a laughing, friendly, quite British way.
She was so taken aback- more so than I had expected- and so grateful that I was pleased that I had gone to the trouble and not brushed it off as a weird thing to do (which is, I'm sure, what I would have done before Christmas).
One of the main things that I have learnt this month is the wonders of a Creme Egg. I've bought them for a few people just to cheer them up, make them smile and brighten their day and they are magical in their power to lift spirits.
d) This is a very small example but I wanted to give an example of a time that I made someone smile without spending any money. I was in the queue in Tesco when the lady in front of me started counting out her pennies in an effort to pay using cash rather than card. After what felt like a lifetime she realised that she was three pennies short. The cashier rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something along the lines of 'card it is then.' If I had had the three pennies to give her I would have done, but unfortunately I only had my card as well. I imagined myself in that situation though- not too hard, I've been there far too many times for my liking- and went over and said 'Ooh that just happened to me in the last shop, it's nice to see it happen to somebody else- it reminds me that I'm only human.' At that she smiled and replied 'Thank you so much. I was so embarrassed but I suppose it happens to everyone.'
3. Letter To A Stranger
This is one of the suggestions that Buzz Lightyear posted to my wall and I immediately loved it.
The idea is that you write a letter to a stranger- not about your problems or worries, but about positive things. There are no rules really- except that it is supposed to make the reader smile.
You then leave the letter somewhere to be found- on a train, in a cafe- wherever you see fit.
I read some of the comments on the article and found that several people thought that there is nothing special about a letter to a stranger because it's random- if it's random how can it possibly mean anything?
I understood why they would think that but hugely disagreed. I think there would be something magical about finding a letter left for someone to find- even if it wasn't specifically targeted at me. The lady that I bought a coffee for knows that I didn't choose to buy it for her because it was her, just as the toll man knows that I would still have handed over the chocolate coin if it hadn't been him working that day- but it doesn't make it any less spirit-lifting.
So I set about writing the letter- the contents of which will never be known but which I kept short, sweet and genuine- and left it at a bus stop. Walking past the bus stop the next day and seeing that it had disappeared felt exciting and magical and filled me with curiosity.
It could have been a grumpy fourteen year old boy who found it, screwed it up and put it in the bin, or it could have been a thirty year old woman who needed it to make her smile after a stressful day.
I will never know.
Which is half the downside, and half the fun.
4. The Empty Jar
I was recently speaking to Happy, and he shared with me a theory about how to monitor whether your life is good enough. He said that he often asks his friends: on a scale of one to ten- how happy are you with your life?
If it's below seven, it is absolutely not good enough and you need to do something about it. If it's above seven- amazing, but keep tweaking it to keep it there and maybe push it even higher.
Think about this yourself- where are you?
My suggestion is that- wherever you are on the happy scale- this second idea from Buzz- The Empty Jar- is a brilliant way to push your happiness a bit higher and bring your attention to the small joys in life.
This involves keeping an empty jar in your bedroom. Every time something good happens to you- however small- you should write it down on a piece of paper and put it in your jar. Then whenever you feel down about life- which even Happy does sometimes, I'm sure, read some of the positives in the jar and remember how good life can sometimes be.
Mine isn't filled with amazing, life-changing things, but with tiny, momentary things that can easily be forgotten. The time that the man who started this whole thing told me randomly that I was pretty as a painting, the time that the lady in the newsagents gave me the paper for free (because I had bought so many creme eggs that day in my attempt to spread happiness), and the day that the Irish Prince randomly sent me a package containing all the things I missed most about Ireland (apart from himself obviously...).
When you've been doing it for a year- take it out and read them all back. It makes for some interesting and smile-provoking reading.
I have learned a lot from my month of spreading joy. I've learnt that there's a hugely underrated kick to be had from doing little things to make others smile, that making others happy is inextricably linked to being happy yourself, and that if snow drops were Creme Eggs- the world would be a far happier place right now.
So as I go off to Florida where it will be my full time job to make people smile, to make every day magical and to generally Spread The Joy, I like to think that the happiness will continue to spread right here in the UK- starting with you :)