Before we had kids, Jeff and I fostered a couple of cats. One had feline AIDS and was very skinny. Despite our frugal grocery budget of the time, I put olive oil on her food, determined to get her healthier. I knew that stray cats were not a top global priority, and that this wasn’t even the best way of helping stray cats, but it was what I wanted to do.
. . . . .
The bike path near where I live has a lot of broken glass on the ground nearby. My family likes to go barefoot in the summer, and a lot of people walk their dogs there. Last summer I started bringing a container when we went out and cleaning a patch of ground each time. Picking up glass gave me something a little goal-oriented to do while the kids were playing. The kids got excited about spotting pieces of glass and pointing them out to me. Neighbors would stop and join me for a while.
. . . . .
I don’t want to hold these up as an example of impact. They’re not, or at least not examples of any important impact. I think there are way too many narratives encouraging people to practice small acts of kindness that produce equally small benefits. Women especially may be encouraged to see their life’s impact as resting on their service to friends, family, and local community.
That’s why I felt kind of worried to find myself engaging in these small acts. I want people to look at the big picture and aim high. If you’ve been taught that “doing your part” meant recycling and a bit of volunteering, you’ll need to find something more ambitious if you want to make a bigger difference.
But it can be painful to stare at the scale of the world’s problems, and I don’t recommend doing it all the time. Not every part of your life will be optimized for maximum altruistic impact.
Some of those small acts can be pretty satisfying. Humans do best when we’re in connection with other humans. And we feel mastery when we have small goals that we can meet. Doing your best for a stray cat, bringing the snacks to a game night, going to a rally, or helping a neighbor restart their car are achievable in a way that “reduce the risk of nuclear war” is not. They also strengthen your relationships with those around you.
(One year when my coworkers and I were preparing for the EA Global conference, one of our speakers went for a walk in Oakland and was gone for a surprisingly long time. It turned out someone had flagged him down and asked him to help move her furniture. He said it was refreshing to spend half an hour doing something so obviously not the best use of his time.)
As Gregory Lewis argues, it’s unlikely that any one action is going to be optimal for all your goals. The food that’s tastiest is unlikely to also be the most nutritious and also the most ethically produced. So you might need to make some tradeoffs, and acknowledge that both chocolate and dark leafy greens are good, but not for the same things.
Prioritize big problems. Spend a good chunk of your money and/or your time working on them.
But in your other time, do what’s refreshing and restorative to you. Some of that will be purely hedonic — sleeping in, music, cake. And some might be small acts of kindness that make your day brighter, even though they’re not saving the world.