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(Jérôme Mireault For The Globe and Mail)
(Jérôme Mireault For The Globe and Mail)

The gift in giving

Cole Banning: ‘We’re all about showing people they should enjoy each other’s company’ Add to ...

What inspires people to give? And what do they get out of it? We asked readers to tell us about people who make a real difference in their community, then asked experts in the science of altruism how their generosity pays off for more than just those they set out to help.

A warning to anyone walking the streets of Toronto on Dec. 21: Don’t be surprised if you’re handed a beautifully wrapped present by someone you’ve never seen before.

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Gifts for Strangers is the work of Improv in Toronto, a group of pranksters who have roamed the city’s streets for the past five years, doing all sorts of odd things, such as invading the subway system to dance or simply to go from A to B while wearing no pants.

The goal? To have fun and spread some joy, according to Cole Banning, a 22-year-old business student at Ryerson University who started the troupe while in high school.

“We initially met online,” he says of his co-conspirators, “but after setting up countless improv events, we’ve all become good friends.”

The pantless subway ride came first and has spawned more than 50 pranks, including an annual Easter scavenger hunt at Toronto’s City Hall that now attracts more than 1,000 participants.

Started in 2010, Gifts for Strangers is a personal favourite of Mr. Banning, who says 200 recruits make the crafts, wrap them prettily and then hit the streets in search of unsuspecting recipients. Typically, the reaction is “mostly shock, a lot of laughter, and the question, why?” The simple answer, he adds, is to “spread some Christmas joy.”

Mr. Banning, the improv troupe’s president, says he’s particularly proud that Gifts for Strangers has gone global, and will take place in 20 cities this year, including such countries as Romania, Mexico, Iceland and the Czech Republic.

Another recent hit was the Umbrella Taxi Service, which had volunteers in matching T-shirts waiting in the rain to escort people leaving Toronto’s Bathurst subway station wherever they wanted to go.

Mr. Banning says many of his stunts are staged in the subway, because it’s a place where riders typically avoid eye contact and actively ignore each other. “We’re all about showing people that they should interact and enjoy each other’s company because, if they do, it will make them feel better,” he says.

The events often take meticulous planning, with the only payment being “emails from people who will thank us for the experience,” he adds. “They appreciate the chance we’ve given them to change their day, give them something else to think and talk about.

“We just want to spread a little levity and light.”

Positive outcomes

The work of Mr. Banning and his troupe demonstrates a number of “character strengths” – personality traits that have moral value. They exhibit creativity (having novel and productive ideas), zest (living with excitement and vigour), kindness (doing good deeds for others), and humor (laughing and making others do the same).

– The Canadian Positive Psychology Association

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