I love birthdays! They are the days of the year when we celebrate our individual existences on this lovely planet. And I am shameless about telling anyone who pauses to chat: Today is my birthday!
Consequently, between my personal encounters, whether planned or unplanned, and the messages of love that stream in via Facebook and email, my life appears to be a one-way street of happiness. But is it?
By nature, I perform random acts of kindness habitually. So four years ago on my birthday, I resolved to turn the one-way street of well wishes into a six-lane freeway speeding in both directions. Depending on the situation, some strangers were going to benefit from my special day.
I began by handing five dollars to the homeless woman who is a regular outside Starbucks; once inside, I bought a latte for the gentleman behind me in line; I gave my lunch to a homeless man pulling a wagon filled with his possessions past a local café; I made a $50 donation to a children’s home; and I purchased a bag of groceries for a food bank. By evening, I found it difficult to contain the giddy elation I felt. The more I gave, the more I wanted to give!
As it turns out, both ancient philosophy and modern science support my experiences. Aristotle argued that an individual realizes happiness when successfully performing his or her moral duties. And a recent study out of Harvard Business School gives evidence to a growing body of research that provides methodologically diverse support for the uplifting rewards of generosity.
Beyond the emotional benefits are the unexpected humorous moments that occur. In general, I find that people are taken back, and sometimes suspicious, when a stranger does something nice, and so I am learning to be prepared for just about anything!
The man at Starbucks…I overheard him whispering to a friend that I had been trying to pick him up. And the homeless woman…she wouldn’t take the ten dollars I offered initially, but accepted five dollars graciously. And then this past birthday, there was a homeless man sitting outside a 7/11 store. He asked for money because he was hungry, so I bought him a sandwich, yogurt, banana, cupcakes, chips, and water. When I handed him the bag, he picked through my choices and then walked around the corner of the building to a locker where he stashed my bag with a dozen others.
“You’re doing all right,” I said and smiled.
He grinned and, without saying anything, returned to his place on the sidewalk.
I can’t say why I began my tradition of birthday giving. I admit that a part of the experience is egotistical, but honestly there are enough humbling moments when the giving comes straight from the heart and the spontaneous connection between a stranger and me is as magical as any moment can get.
Postscript: Giving doesn’t have to happen on your birthday and it doesn’t have to be big! When I use the self-checkout at the grocery store, I often leave the small change. And my favorite surprise for people is tucking a dollar bill under the baby seat of the grocery cart when I return it to the rack.