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My week of paying it forward: Could I be a nicer person for seven days? Add to ...

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

 

Anew trend has taken hold on the birthday celebration scene and it has nothing to do with lavish gifts or monster benders. Over the summer, Syed Muzamil Hasan Zaidi, a filmmaker in Pakistan, marked his 22nd birthday by performing 22 random acts of kindness. In Florida, Mandi Craig did the same thing on her 25th, and last week, Tracy Langdon, a 37-year-old mother from Newfoundland, handed out flowers and hugs to total strangers in a shopping mall – one of 37 selfless acts she performed over one week.

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The concept of paying it forward (rather than taking everything you can get) goes back a lot further than that terrible Kevin Spacey movie. Good deeds represent the very best of humanity, while the ripple effect of kindness (you do something nice for someone, who is then moved to do nice things for other people, and so on) speaks to the infinite power of small acts. It’s still a couple of months until my birthday, but with Thanksgiving around the corner, I decided to spend the week performing small acts of kindness in the hopes of saving humanity. Or at least brightening a few people’s days.

 

Confessions of a dog park deviant

 

The week began with a series of small gestures – I swept my neighbour’s sidewalk, I brewed a couple of hot coffees for the two construction workers (Jason and Mike) who were drilling across the street, I offered to carry grocery bags for an older gentleman and let a woman with only one item go ahead of me in the checkout line.

In this last instance, the woman looked at me with confusion, like I was speaking another language, which was particularly strange since letting people with small purchases go before me at the grocery store is something I regularly do. She wasn’t mad, but maybe a bit suspicious. I, on the other hand, was feeling great – doing good releases endorphins to the brain, which explains, among other things, why Mother Theresa was always smiling.

While at the grocery store I picked up a bag of doggy treats. The plan was to hit a nearby dog park and hand the treats out to adorable, appreciative canines, but as I made my approach I started to feel like a weird man walking into a children’s playground with a bag full of candy. I didn’t even have a dog with me – pet owners were likely to view me as some sort of puppy pervert.

I went back to the grocery store and bought a Post-it pad and a marker. I wrote: “Safe treats for your four-legged friend. Pay it forward.” Then I left the open bag of goodies under a tree. When I told this story to my friend she pointed out that people would still be wary of the offering – dog poisoners are just as capable of writing notes on Post-it pads, after all.

On my way home I scribbled cheesy mash notes (You’re awesome! Never change! Somebody loves you!) and stuck them on people’s cars. If I came across such a note, I would probably assume that someone was making fun of me. I can only hope my random recipients were less jaded and/or damaged from high school.

 

Vegan soup for the soul

 

The most rewarding part of the experiment was bestowing kindness on the people I care about. I did some ironing and loaded the dishwasher at my mother’s house while she wasn’t around. I wrote a thank-you note to tell a friend how much I appreciate her. I called up a couple I know who just had a baby and asked if I could drop off dinner – they are gluten-free vegans, so I considered this to be a particularly selfless offering.

I figured these acts still counted as random since I’m not in the habit of doing other people’s domestic work. (Or sending snail mail.) And, of course, I had no agenda or expectation of being paid back, beyond the obvious rewards of being an agent of goodness.

I like to imagine that something I did this week was the first link in a chain or even a snowball of kindness. Maybe the guy who got my “You’re awesome” Post-it was inspired to buy flowers for his girlfriend or let someone through in traffic or call his mom. Voltaire said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” meaning that just because you’re not going to spend Thanksgiving serving in a soup kitchen, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother donating a can of soup. Small is still special – I’m pretty sure my well-fed friends with the new baby would agree.

 

The next challenge: Gluten-free is the food industry’s buzzword du jour. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus say going gluten-free prompted weight loss, while others credit the wheat-free diet with curing everything from abdominal pain to migraines. Try it for a week. Do you feel better or worse and how much do you miss the food you can’t have? Share your thoughts at fb.me/globelifestream

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

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