Kindness Experts: Jennifer Willis-Rivera

hoLX_5S2oKSfUm1dKo7gzhR65ajU9OwBAQ0-icsgI7EWe’re launching a new blog series, “Kindness Experts” to bring you tidbits and media from some of today’s kindness “pros”. Check back each month for new interviews and inspiring stories full of ways to help us change the world through small, random acts of kindness.

Random Acts Development Officer Jennifer Willis-Rivera isn’t just good at establishing and maintaining our partnerships and fundraising efforts — over the years, she’s established herself as a voice of leadership in the academic world as well. A professor of Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, Jennifer spends her days utilizing her Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University to encourage students to pursue loftier paths of achievement by preparing them for careers in various industries, such as law, the clergy, college teaching, retail, health services, international relations, and negotiations.

With 20 years of experience in the field and plenty of hands-on work with regional communities through volunteer work, it was no surprise that the mother of two was invited this winter to present a talk through the TED conference, a series of public speeches on a variety of topics by those with vast experience in their field. Nominated by Paul Shepherd, organizer of the UW River Falls TEDx conference, Jennifer admitted that the first draft on her chosen topic — “The Hidden Power of Kindness” — didn’t quite go as planned.

“The first draft I wrote was awful,” joked Jennifer. “But the second one was much better.”

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After awaiting approval from a committee of TED officials, Jennifer’s talk was easily selected out of the bunch — and in April, she finally had the chance to take to the stage and present it.

In a well-researched, 11 minute talk, the communications professor discussed the positive consequences of performing acts of kindness, from improved physical health to increased emotional well-being.

“The research shows that if you engage in acts of kindness on a regular basis, or if you volunteer, you’re going to have fewer instances of the cold,” she explained. “You’re going to have fewer bouts of the flu. If you suffer from depression you’re going to have less [destructive phases of] depression. … You’re going to live longer.”

Of course, Jennifer added, it wasn’t just the researchers who were doing all the talking — she had learned it through personal experience as well.

“[After practicing more acts of kindness on a regular basis], I found that the mornings that I woke up angry, I found myself a little less angry,” she said. “When I had to interact with people I didn’t like, I found myself really learning to value them as human beings.”

The habit of being a little kinder, she added, wasn’t just for the bold or those who were already “good” on paper. In fact, she explained, you didn’t have to necessarily be “good” at all to perform good deeds — you just needed to get out of bed and do it.

“Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean you can be ‘bad’ and be kind,” quipped Jennifer. “It means that you don’t have to hold yourself to ‘Mother Teresa’ standards [to make a difference].”

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For being only 11 minutes long, the inspiring speech felt more like a session with an inspiring motivational speaker than an educational conference. For her part, Jennifer says the event was nerve-wracking but 100 percent helpful — not only for her, but for the very students in the audience that sat through her lectures on a weekly basis.

“It was good for my students to see how nervous I get doing public speaking because they think it comes easy for me, but I still have to practice,” she said. “Being nervous actually means you are passionate and care about the outcome … you just need to learn to channel it.”

Asked if she had any follow-up advice for those watching her speech for the first time on the TED website, she added, “Make kindness a habit. I would actually schedule my kindness acts at first because if I didn’t, I would forget.”

Once you’ve established that habit, she explained, opportunities seem to crop up more and more frequently — and in a world where negativity and sour news is so often the norm, it might just help to escape every now and then to a place where that negativity, if only for a short while, has been irrevocably put on hold.

Check out Jennifer’s inspiring TED talk below and start planning your own act of kindness (it’s good for you too, right?).