The key to happiness Handing out cakes on the street
The elderly lady in front of me in the supermarket is beginning to cry and a single tear rolls down her cheek. Her hands are trembling and she shakes her head.
‘But I don’t deserve this, I really don’t,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what to say, but thank you, dear. Thank you very much.’
She walks away slowly and the woman behind the counter smiles at me. ‘You’ve made her year,’ she says. ‘She’s had a rotten time recently: she broke her hip a few months ago and her husband isn’t well. It’s very nice what you did. Very nice, indeed.’
Sweetness and light: Marianne hands out some comfort food to a grateful passerby
I didn’t do much at all; I simply gave her the small bunch of daffodils she had admired in my shopping basket.
She told me daffs had always been her favourite — ‘They’re like a ray of sunshine,’ she said — so I handed them to her. It was a gesture that cost me nothing. Well, 1.50 if we’re counting, but from the look on her face you’d have thought I’d given her a million pounds.
I walk away feeling like the Mother Teresa of the High Street.
A week ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of carrying out such a spontaneous good deed. I would have been too wrapped up in my own little world for it to even occur to me.
But this week I am on a mission to perform as many ‘random acts of kindness’ as I can. From picking up litter to giving flowers to strangers, my challenge is to make the world a better place one good deed at a time.
It’s part of a worldwide ‘kindness’ movement that has been gathering pace, with books and websites — such as randomactsofkindness.org — springing up to offer people ‘kindness challenges’, such as planting a flower in someone’s garden under cover of darkness or putting coins in someone else’s parking meter.
Now artist Michael Landy has created an art project based on the theme. Called Acts Of Kindness, he has asked people to write about good deeds they have experienced on the London Underground.
Tuck in: The free cakes go down well but not all Marianne's good deeds were so well-received
Examples include a woman who held a stranger’s hand and gave her tissues because she was crying; another who gave a girl 20 to get on the train because she had left her Travelcard at home and was on her way to take her A-levels.
Even science is getting in on the act with a raft of new studies suggesting that helping makes us happier.
Dr David Hamilton, author of Why Kindness Is Good For You, says: ‘When you do something for someone else, your brain produces hormones: dopamine, which makes you feel happy and gives you the feeling that what you are doing is right; and opiates, the body’s own secret stash of morphine.’
It sounds like a win-win situation for everyone. So can I change my life and that of others by doing good deeds
'Why are we all so suspicious of anyone doing or saying anything nice When did we get so cynical'
I start on a Monday morning, full of beans and optimism. On the way to work, I make a real effort to greet passers-by with a smile and a ‘Good morning’. I am braced for weird looks and rejection, but several smile and nod back at me.
O n the bus I offer up my seat. When I get to the office, I hold open the door and let five people go through before me. With just one exception, they all say thank you. The world suddenly seems to be a very friendly place.
Heading back home, it’s raining. I have an umbrella, but a woman coming towards me on the pavement doesn’t and is getting drenched. I stop and ask her if she’d like mine.
Her eyes narrow, as if figuring out what my game is, but I don’t give her a choice — I hand it over and keep walking. A few seconds later I hear a bewildered: ‘Thank you!’
Day Two starts just as well. One of the kindness ideas suggested online is to send a letter of thanks to someone who means a lot to you.
I decide to send a card to my auntie who has been like a second mother to me. Just writing it makes me weepy, and as I pop it into the postbox my heart swells. Inspired, I send emails to friends telling them how much they mean to me. I get messages back telling me that I’ve made their day.
In the afternoon I offer to pay for the coffee of the elderly man behind me in the Starbucks queue. He looks stunned. ‘I’ve come into a bit of money and would like to share my good luck,’ I say, hoping the little white lie will let him accept my offer.
It does. He smiles and tells me that it is a lovely birthday present. ‘I am 80 next week,’ he says. I tell him he looks ten years younger and he beams. We chat for a few minutes and I feel as if I’ve made a friend.
Say it with flowers: Handing out bouquets to strangers brightened their days
Alas, on Day Three, the fun stops.
Determined to be more original with my good deeds, I head to my local newsagents. I buy a paper and a scratchcard and when I hand over my money, I pass back the scratchcard to the newsagent. ‘That’s for you,’ I say. ‘Hope you are lucky.’
He looks at me as if I have a bomb strapped to my back and pushes the card back to me. ‘No, no, no,’ he says, quite aggressively.
‘No catch,’ I say. ‘I just fancy doing something nice.’
He shakes his head: ‘I’m not allowed, no. It’s against the rules.’
On the way to work I ask my local dentist’s surgery if they’d like a dozen or so relatively new magazines I have finished with. The receptionist looks as if I’m trying to con her. ‘Our table is very full,’ she says, suspiciously. ‘But I suppose you can leave them if you want to.’
She annoys me so much I take them to my local hairdresser instead. During my lunch hour I stop to talk to a man in a wheelchair. ‘Can I do anything for you’ I ask. He looks irritated and waves me away.
I get home to a panicked phone call from my aunt: she has got my card and wants to know if I’m sick.
I give up. Why are we all so suspicious of anyone doing or saying anything nice When did we get so cynical So much for the ‘helper’s high’; I’m having a kindness crash.
'As Aesop wrote in his fables: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted”'
Day Four and I force myself to get back on the kindness bandwagon after reading about Cath Webb, who has set herself the challenge of baking a cake and giving it to someone every day for 12 months — just to make them smile.
Inspired by her selfless generosity, I go to my local baker, where I buy a dozen pretty iced creations and decide to take along some flowers to hand out to strangers, too.
As I hold out my tray on the street, I feel nervous. Commuters walk past looking at me as if I’m crazy, but others ask what I’m doing. ‘I’m carrying out a random act of kindness,’ I say. Most people love the idea. I get a hug from one young girl. ‘This is so nice!’ she grins. The cakes are gone in two minutes. I feel all warm and fuzzy. That evening I help an American tourist catch the right train. I go to bed polishing my halo.
My final day gets off to a bad start. It’s raining and I wake up to an email from my accountant telling me I owe more tax than I expected.
It puts me in such a bad mood that I have to force myself to stop and help a French girl who asks me for directions.
She is looking for a road that is a 20-minute walk away. Looking at the piece of paper she is clutching, it transpires she is on her way to a homeless shelter.
She says she’s been in London for five days and has no money. Her one friend has told her she can’t stay with him any more. She asks if she can stay with me and I feel a pang of guilt as I say ‘No’, but I walk with her to the shelter.
I leave her with charity workers who give her a hot dinner and phone around to find her a bed. Just ten minutes spent watching them makes me appreciate that these people carry out more acts of random kindness in a single day than I will in a lifetime.
I realise how self-serving my experiment has been. Being nice to those you love and to strangers, whether it’s holding open doors or donating money to charity, shouldn’t be one-off projects designed to make you feel good; it should be how we live our lives.
So I’ve applied to help out at the homeless shelter and I might even try to give my newsagent another scratchcard. He might throw it back at me, but so be it.
After all, as Aesop wrote in his fables: ‘No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.’