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A “positive intervention” is a “happiness activity” – a term coined by positive psychologists to describe an action one can take to improve their psychological well-being. For example: maintaining a gratitude journal and writing at bedtime three good things you are grateful for, writing about your “best possible self” to cultivate optimism, conducting one random act of kindness a day. The interventions are like gym exercises for the mind, training it to engage in thoughts, feelings, and types of behavior that will make you happier. Performing one random act of kindness is like going through one repetition of lifting weights. In itself it only has residual value, but performing it continuously over time builds the mental muscle mass of kindness and generosity. With time it becomes a skill, a habit, and a part of who you are. When you read books about positive psychology you may think that these interventions are special things that need to be taken on, a deviation from daily routine, something that you would not normally do every day. But opportunities to work out those muscles lie everywhere on the path of your day. They just need to be given the right attention and experienced in full.
Five years ago, when I started Signal Patterns, I conducted an ethnography study to learn the way empty nesters go about rebuilding their social life after their children grow up and leave home. One of the participants in the study was a computer architect who lived in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. When his kids left home he moved from a brownstone in New Jersey to a tiny New York City apartment with one small window, where he lined the walls with vinyl records. He was a happy man. When we asked him about the source of his happiness, he said he had many friends. This is not surprising, as social connections are known to be a key source of one’s well-being, but interestingly his friends were not work colleagues or school and neighborhood friends. His friends were the merchants and vendors in the neighborhood surrounding his apartment. Every day he would go to the mom and pop shops at the Lower East Side: a cheese store, an old record store, and of course, a local Deli. Over time the owners of the store knew him, and he knew them, and he would stay at a store and chat with the owner about sports, music, and politics. In some instances the friendship went outside the boundaries of the neighborhood (he went to see a Killers concert with one of the store owners), but most of the time the relationship remained confined to the boundaries of shopping and chatting. These casual relationships that seemed shallow on the surface were a significant pillar of his social life.
This morning I stopped by the local Deli (which I do often) and took a minute to examine my experience. The TV is on and people stand while waiting for their sandwiches, pouring coffee into their cups, and talking about the news or the game that is on. These short cuts of conversations add up to an interesting experience potentially combining two important aspects of positive psychology and well-being: fostering social relationships and being immersed in the present moment. I paid, lingered a little to watch TV, and exchanged goodbyes with the Deli owner. Byram Karasu writes about living an extraordinary existence in an ordinary life. I believe the New York Deli is a great example of that idea, turning millions of groggy pre-coffee creatures each morning into smiling human beings. The New York Deli is with no doubt a positive intervention. At least for me.