Winston Churchill famously said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Here are 50 easy, affordable ways to give — and get — joy.
With all due respect to karma, a lifetime’s an awfully long time to wait to have your best intentions rewarded with a shiny gold star. Luckily, you don’t have to wait: The benefits of charity and compassion are powerful and immediate. You’ve seen it on the bus, when someone offers his or her seat to an elderly person: The generous person feels noble, the elderly person beams with gratitude, and even spectators feel like cheering inside just from having witnessed a simple act of kindness. As it turns out, the effects of those experiences aren’t just psychological. Those who study the science of do-gooding have discovered that performing (or even just imagining performing) a good deed has majorphysiological benefits — for the giver, not just the recipient. Naturally, we don’t behave in benevolent ways to benefit from our actions…but just between us, the side effects are awesome.
David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., is a chemist who left a career developing cardiac and cancer drugs to do research that led to studying the health benefits of kindness and happiness. Hamilton says that performing a kind act releases oxytocin — the same brain chemical that surges when you hold your baby or snuggle a dog — which also temporarily lowers blood pressure. “Kindness is literally good for your heart,” explains Hamilton.
Nearly a hundred years ago, aviator Amelia Earhart observed, “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” Her inspiring words were borne out by the results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed how a single altruistic kidney donation set off a domino effect, resulting in 10 successive transplants.
Perhaps because tough economic times bring out our neighborly compassion — or because it’s an idea that never went away — suddenly kindness feels like it’s all around us and more important than ever. Right now, there’s a Chicago man performing an act of kindness every day, and blogging about it (at 366randomacts.org),to set a good example for his daughter — sometimes it’s as simple as scrubbing the house from top to bottom, which made his wife break down in tears. There’s a woman who rings strangers’ doorbells and leaves sunflowers on their stoops (kindnessgirl.com); she also scrawls first-day-of-school sidewalk messages that say, “Don’t be shy, we’re all new friends!” And there’s a coffee shop in South Carolina where ordinary customers regularly hand over $100 bills with instructions that the cash be used to pay for other customers’ coffee until the money runs out. Look closely and you’ll see the generosity of everyday people everywhere. All we have to do to change our own lives is pass it on.
1. Leave a bouquet at the hospital — the nurses will know who needs it the most.
2. Make a struggling family’s summer by buying them a season pass to the municipal pool.
3. Help a friend see today in a wondrous new light: Hand him or her a kaleidoscope.
4. If you are in a long line, invite the person behind you to go first.
5. Shower the pediatric wing of a hospital with $1 coloring books and $2 boxes of new crayons.
6. Hang a sign on a bulletin board that says “Take What You Need” — with tear-off tabs at the bottom for Love, Hope, Faith, and Courage.
7. Bring courtesy back in an instant: Hold the door open with a flourish.
8. Drop off combs, toothbrushes, and toothpaste at a shelter or a soup kitchen.
9. Curb road rage: Let other cars merge onto the highway.
10. Leave your neighbors a note that tells them how much joy you find in admiring their garden.
11. Put sticky notes with positive messages (e.g., “You look gorgeous!”) on a restroom mirror.
12. In low-income families, a baby can spend a day or longer in the same diaper, and laundromats often don’t allow cloth diapers to be washed in machines. Help out a mom and a baby by donating diapers (find a directory of diaper banks atdiaperbanknetwork.org).
13. Send a thank-you note to the brave officers at your local police station. (Given how we carry on about parking tickets, it’s important to acknowledge the daily risks taken by the men and women on the force.)
14. Share the wealth: Ask the grocery clerk to apply your unused coupons to another customer’s items.
15. Arrange to pay anonymously for a soldier’s breakfast when you see him or her dining alone.
16. Slip a $20 gas card or public-transportation pass into someone’s shopping bag.
17. Rekindle your Girl Scout spirit: Pick up trash at a park or a playground.
18. Donate your old professional clothes to an organization, like Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org), that helps women jump-start their careers — and up their confidence.
19. Carry someone’s groceries.
20. Offer your mail carrier a glass of iced tea or a $5 Starbucks gift card.
21. Bake bread or cookies and deliver the food to a nearby fire station or group home.
22. Be the bigger person: Cede the parking space.
23. Check “yes” when asked if you wish to become an organ donor — and tell your family.
24. Lay your neighbors’ newspaper at their front door along with a plate of blueberry muffins
25. Donate old cell phones to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ncadv.org), which will use the proceeds for programs that protect families from abuse.
26. Sing an employee’s praises to a manager or on a comment card — a little recognition goes a long way.
27. Share happy memories. Stick an old photo in the mail to a friend and write a note about the day it was taken on the back.
28. Send an ooey-gooey dessert over to another table at a restaurant.
29. Leave a copy of a book you love, with a note for the next reader, on the train or the bus.
30. Send valentines in August.
31. Load extra change into the vending machine to buy the next person a Coke.
32. Send somebody an e-card, just because. The funnier, the better.
33. Name a star after someone (starregistry.com).
34. Forgive someone. Repeat as necessary.
35. Resolve to refrain from negative self-talk (you deserve your kindness, too!).
36. On trash day, wheel your neighbor’s can out to the curb.
37. Relay an overheard compliment.
38. You don’t have to send every disadvantaged child to college, but you can buy one of them a life-changing book: Try booksforkids.org.
39. To melt away her blues, send a friend a funny video from YouTube.
40. Volunteer to read to kids at an after-school program.
41. Give your mom a shout-out on your birthday — after all, she deserves some credit for your life.
42. Pause and give people the benefit of the doubt. E-mail, especially, can cause unintentional feather-ruffling.
43. Bring your spouse coffee in bed.
44. Treat an elderly neighbor, with a gift certificate, to a $30 pedicure. Bonus points if you can do so anonymously.
45. Dedicate a song on the radio to someone you know is listening during his or her long commute.
46. Take kindness on the road: Pay the toll for the car behind you.
47. Slow way down when you drive past a pedestrian — 35 mph can seem like the Indy 500 to a woman walking her dog.
48. Rescue a wallflower! Strike up a conversation with someone who’s standing alone at a party.
49. Leave extra umbrellas in vestibules with notes that say “Use this to stay dry!”
50. Ask others — sincerely — what you can do to help.