In mid-October, I decided to do something nice, every day, for 30 days. It wasn’t exact. It wasn’t because of a Facebook initiative or a much-forwarded e-mail. I just made it up.
Why? Paris, I guess. I was so tuned in to everything when I was there: the art, the architecture, the flowers in the gardens, the public spaces, the people. When I got back, that awareness carried over for a little while. The leaves were turning and I was knocked out by the colors. When I went to places I’d been to a million times, I noticed new little details. It was cool, and I wanted to prolong it somehow.
I figured it wasn’t possible to be endlessly charmed by everyday life, but I didn’t want to go right back to zooming through on autopilot, either. So, I came up with 30 days of nice.
I’m a nice person, actually. It may not seem like it, but it’s true, damn it. I have a flinty exterior, but on the inside, I’m mush.
Don’t believe me? Check out my mailbox sometime. It’s stuffed with appeals from Oxfam, Smile Train, Orphan Acres, Humane Society International, Doris Day Animal League, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace. I write a lot of checks, so I’m on a lot of lists. But check-writing is an arms-length niceness. It enables good things to happen, but it’s passive caring.
I like to do more active caring. At one workplace in San Francisco, I organized a Giving Tree at Christmas. I had to whip it together in about a week, and I was blown away by how many of my snotty co-workers contributed. One guy that I thought was a complete assclown offered to drive me 50 miles to the drop-off site when my car battery died. It was a classic Christmas lesson: Maybe you’re the assclown, sister.
After the 2011 tornado in Joplin, I reached out to my friends and my husband’s co-workers and got bags upon bags of food, dog beds and other supplies for the Humane Society there. It cost me $200 to ship it, and the guy at the shipping store actually paid for half. I did a stuffed animal drive a few years ago, and my Honda CR-V was stuffed from floor to ceiling with plush toys. I like facilitating things like that. It gives me a visceral, deep-in-the-gut good feeling that I can’t duplicate any other way.
But my nice things are sporadic. Most of the time, I’m worrying about stupid stuff like my hair length or whether my son has too much homework. I’ll sit down and write a bunch of checks to charitable organizations and feel that good, fuzzy feeling, but then the next day, I’m wrapped up in the mundane crap again.
My 30 days of nice experiment had one rule: Do one nice thing a day. That’s it. The nice thing could be a bigger gesture, like helping an older woman with Parkinson’s write out several Priority Mail slips at the post office. Or, it could be something as simple as letting a harried mom go ahead of me in the checkout line.
Sometimes, I had Bini with me, like the time I bought a Trader Joe’s gift card for a local family and delivered it to a mega church I normally wouldn’t have gone near. Sometimes, the gesture was personal, like when I wrote to a friend to tell her I was thinking of her. My favorite was when I called my dad up, just to talk. The surprise and pleasure in his voice was enough to convince me that small gestures do matter. A lot.
So, did doing something intentionally nice for 30 days change me as a person? Not really. I still zip around, ticking through my endless to-do lists and mentally gnawing on insignificant non-issues. But I do think my experiment helped me calm my chronic busy problem. If you’re looking for opportunities to do nice things, you have to pause. And when you pause, you chill out.
I don’t automatically hit the “close doors” button in the elevator anymore. I say “good morning” to the crossing guards, and make eye contact. When the checkout guy asks me how my day’s going, I also ask about his. Tiny gestures, I know. But they make me feel good. More human, more connected. Nice.