Small acts of kindness

Written by Karen Shymanski, communications manager at the Institute for Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis

The holidays can bring out the best, and the worst, in people.

The best – many are in a giving spirit and look for ways in which they can give back to their community. The worst – when people become frantically busy trying to meet the demands of the season (parties, shopping, baking, entertaining, etc.), their stress levels can increase and they might take it out on those around them.

Not everyone is able to donate to a charity or contribute in a large financial way. I challenge you to think outside of the box and consider finding other ways to positively impact those you interact with, especially during the holiday season.

A small act of kindness can go a long way and often is either free or may cost very little.

Think about all the people you come across during any given day and consider your interactions with them.

  • Maybe you have an elderly neighbor who always wants to chat. How much time would it take to have a quick conversation? Think about the boost that might give them.
  • Rather than passing the co-worker in the hallway without saying anything, offer up a hello and a smile. See what type of reaction you get in return.
  • You often hear of people going through a drive-through line and paying for the order of the person behind them. Imagine how shocked you’d be if someone did that for you.
  • Many local organizations hold food or toy drives. A small donation can help others in your community during the holiday season. Some of these organizations may even need volunteers to help sort or organize the donations.

Sometimes it’s the simplest (and often random) acts that can provide great rewards. Ultimately, you are helping others but the feeling of satisfaction can be even better.

Personally, I think about retail workers at this time of year. Yes, it’s a job they willingly have. No one forced them to take that particular position. However, during the holidays, they often work extended hours and deal with unpleasant and rude customers. The general public is rarely filled with sunshine and joy when dealing with crowded stores and longer than normal lines.

Several years ago, I started what I call “random acts of Christmas,” based off the idea of random acts of kindness.  I purchase little bite-size pre-wrapped candy bars and make small treat bags. When I go out during the month of December, I stash a couple of the treat bags in my purse or coat pocket. As I pay for my purchases at the grocery store, the gas station, a retail store or even the post office, I give the employee one of the bags. More often than not the gesture is met with confusion. I then get to explain that I know their jobs are crazy this time of year. It’s simply my way of saying, “Someone is thinking of you and hopes you have a good day.”

Over the years, this explanation has elicited a variety of responses – it brought an Illinois toll attendant to tears, confused a bagger at a local grocery store (he actually put the treat bag in a plastic grocery bag and handed it back to me) and earned me a hug from a retail cashier. Regardless of how they feel, I leave feeling happy and good. I know I made someone’s day a little bit better, if even for a short amount of time.

I call this “random acts of Christmas.” But ultimately it doesn’t matter what holiday you observe or celebrate. It could be Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Boxing Day. Which holiday you celebrate isn’t important … brightening someone’s day with a small act of kindness is the focus. Do I think I’m making the world a significantly better place by handing out a few pieces of chocolate candy? Of course not. But if the small gesture makes someone else feel good, perhaps they will carry that feeling and pay it forward.

Visit the Random Acts of Kindness website for kindness ideas to get you started.