Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
- Leo Buscaglia

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Thoughts and Observations After a Year of Practicing Kindness

     It really is hard for me to believe that a year has gone by since I began my "kindness project."  I remember "leaking" the idea to a few close friends and family members as I was contemplating it.  While I knew it was a great idea, I was candidly frightened by the magnitude of the commitment.  I take commitments pretty seriously, and I knew that once I made the project public, I would have "boxed myself in" for the year . . . and a year is a lot of days.  I didn't want to go for it unless I was really prepared to honor my commitment for that length of time.  Of course, I also recognized that it was the public accountability that would ultimately help me to stay with it, which is obviously what happened.
Some Background

     Throughout the year, a number of people asked me what caused me to take this project on.  To be honest, it was a bit of an experiment.  I've always been motivated (and fascinated) by self-improvement.  I like to assess my strengths and weaknesses and to see how I can be better.  After noticing a number of incidents in 2011 in which my first instinct wasn't always rooted in kindness, I began to wonder if it was possible for me to cultivate more kindness as a habit.  Could I make kindness a more habitual response as a part of my personality?  Knowing what I do about creating sustained behavioral change, I realized that it would be imperative that I build structure and accountability into what I was attempting.  This project seemed as good a way to do that as I could think of.
     In addition to injecting an important element of accountability, I created this website/blog as a way of recording my thoughts, observations, and learning along the way.  I didn't start with any hypothesis or have any point to prove.  I simply wanted to do kind things, and then report on what happened and what I noticed or learned, absent any judgment.  And that's exactly what I did for 369 consecutive days.  Let me try to summarize here a few of the basic facts and then the key things that I learned.
Just the Facts, Ma'am

     In total, I did an act of kindness every day for 369 days.  I started three days early, on December 29, 2011, mostly because I wanted to experiment a little before the year got started.  I wanted to see how things would go, how to write my blog, etc.  On that first day, I gave a bag of soft pretzels to a man sitting at a bus stop; and I learned plenty right from the beginning.
     I tried to make sure that not everything I did cost money.  In fact, it turns out that 64% of the acts involved no cost at all.  For example, one day I helped a woman with a baby load groceries into her car.  I took family pictures for strangers at a college graduation.  Many times I drove patients to their doctor appointments as part of the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program.  I wrote letters to soldiers, I wrote thank you notes to longtime friends, I wrote cards to sick children, and I visited my old high school principal who now lives in Virginia.  One morning I helped a stranger in Atlanta pick up garbage that was flying around in front of the townhouse community at which she worked.  Fundamentally, I wanted to demonstrate to myself and to others that it doesn't cost anything to be kind.
     Sometimes the acts were totally anonymous.  Several times I bought dessert for a stranger in a restaurant.  I've anonymously sent gift cards in the mail to random addresses and I've surreptitiously shoveled a neighbor's driveway.  
     Other times I've done things for strangers, but they weren't anonymous.  I cooked and delivered a meal for a family who had suffered a tragedy.  Multiple times I delivered flowers to a stranger.  I've given bottled water to a homeless man and I've baked cookies for police officers.  I've delivered hot chocolate to school crossing guards on a cold winter day, and I've made loans to farmers in 3rd world nations.
My Favorites

     When I think about my favorite stories from the year, I probably have three.  I say "probably" because there were so many wonderful things that happened, as you can get a sense for from the many things I mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.  But if I had to choose three, they would be these:

  • My adopted soldier, Logan.  Back in January, I adopted a soldier in Afghanistan to whom I wrote letters every week and sent a care package at least once each month.  Over the course of the year, we became great friends, sharing stories of our families and sharing our love of sports.  In November, at the end of his deployment, I had the opportunity to fly Logan here to spend a weekend with me and to attend an Eagles' game.  Then in December, my wife and I flew out to Kentucky and attended his wedding.  He's become a great friend, and one I never would have known were in not for this program.
  • Sending a woman and her mother for their first ever flight.  I met a woman in late October and after discovering in conversation that she had never before been on an airplane, I offered to use some of my frequent flier miles to remedy that situation.  Eventually, this led to sending the woman and her mother (who also had never flown) on a dream trip to Vegas.  It was a thrill to be able to make this happen for the two of them, and it was an unforgettable experience they were able to share.
  • Road to Recovery Rides.  This is a program sponsored through the American Cancer Society through which volunteers drive patients to their doctor appointments.  I probably drove 8-10 different patients throughout the year, and every one of them was memorable.  I think what I enjoyed most about them was the real sense of impact.  These people desperately needed their treatments, and yet many of them had no transportation at all.  I was making a profound difference for them and they were always so appreciative.

So What Did I Learn?

     One of the unintended, and wonderful, consequences of this project has been the impact it's had on others; and by "others" I'm not referring to the people for whom I've performed acts of kindness.  Rather, I'm referring to those who've been following my blog throughout the year.  Amazingly, between visits to my site and those who are on my daily e-mail feed, my stories have been read more than 100,000 times this year!  What has struck me, in particular, is the feedback I've received from so many people in terms of how it has affected them.
     What I've heard repeatedly is that reading my stories every day has increased their own consciousness about the opportunities for kindness that are all around them.  And more importantly, they are finding themselves doing things for others that they acknowledge they wouldn't have done before. That's pretty cool, though it certainly wasn't my plan.  I was really just doing my own personal experiment and writing mostly to hold myself accountable.  But it ended up going so much further than that.
     Let me share some other observations I've picked up along the way:
  • Kindness is an amazing stress reduction technique.  Throughout the year I've noticed that kindness has this incredible ability to ease tensions and reduce stress, both personally and in groups.  On a personal level, when I focus on just being kind, I notice that I worry less, I feel more relaxed, I don't rush around as much.  Everything just gets easier and more gentle.  In the context of the community, kindness is like a lubricant that makes everything work more easily.  Think of the contrast between a group of people who are pushing and shoving, are fighting for position, or are battling each other versus a group who are polite, kind, and helpful to each other.  The latter simply work better and with less stress.  
  • Kindness and happiness are closely linked.  In nearly all of the literature about the most common practices of happy people, you'll see doing acts of kindness high on the list.  I have certainly found this to be true.  There's something about doing a good deed for another that causes us to feel good ourselves.  Maybe we're biologically designed that way.  Maybe it's simply that when we focus on serving others we stop focusing on our own problems or our own worries.  Whatever it is, it sure seems to work.
  • The world is kinder than we've been led to believe.  Everywhere I went throughout the year I saw lots of examples of basic human decency and kindness.  This was true both in small, simple acts, as well as in response to crisis.  Because the media believes that horror stories sell, they tend to be focused much more on isolated stories of crime and violence and cruelty.  This can lead to a misperception of its prevalence.  It's not very exciting to report that a man helped an old lady across the street today, but it's happening every day all around us.  I've also found that you tend to see whatever you're looking for.  I was looking for kindness, and I saw it everywhere.
  • Kindness is contagious.  It's amazing how one kind act can lead to another.  Just watch someone hold the door open for a few people and you'll see others doing the same.  The cool thing about this fact is that it means we each can have an enormous impact on the world.  Simply by being kind, we begin a ripple that can easily spread further than we could ever have imagined.  I often tried to jumpstart this a bit by suggesting that people "pay it forward."  But either way, I do believe it tends to spread.
  • Kindness is a choice.  I'm not sure it' so much that some people are kind and some aren't.  I think that kindness is more of an action, and most importantly, it's a choice.  Every moment of every day we each have a choice about how to be, how to respond, and what to put out into the world.  And here's the most important thing:  regardless of whatever choices we may have made in the past, we can make a new choice right now to be kind.

How Have I Been Affected and What's Next?

     To be honest, it's a little hard to say just how I've been affected.  I think this is because changes happen so gradually that it can be difficult to notice or delineate them.  I suppose you'd have to ask those around me if they see a difference.  
     I do think that my goal of developing more of a habitual kindness response has been achieved.  After a year of looking for things to do, it's hard for me not to notice them.  Everywhere I look, I see things I can do and am motivated to act on them.  I guess I've really taught myself to notice kindness opportunities that I would never have seen before.  And that's a good thing.
     As to what's next, I hadn't originally planned on going beyond one year, and I have to be honest in saying that it will be nice not to feel the pressure of having to make sure I do something and write about it every single day.  There were certainly days where I felt that pressure and it wasn't always welcome.  Because it's become such a habit though, I expect that I'll continue to do acts of kindness on most days, even if I occasionally miss a day.
     Given how many people have told me the impact that reading my daily stories has had on them, and how they look forward to reading them each day, I'll probably continue to write, just not with the same frequency.  I'm anticipating that it will likely be a few times each week, though we'll see how it all unfolds.
     So here are my final thoughts (well, maybe final):
  • It's been an absolutely fabulous year and a most worthwhile project.
  • I'm proud that I had the courage to take it on, proud that I had the discipline to stay with it, proud to have impacted so many people, and proud to be continuing to work on myself.
  • I'm thankful to all those who encouraged me along the way, and to those who shared your own stories, observations, and reflections.  We're all learning from each other.
I'll close with the Leo Buscaglia quote that's on the masthead of my site:

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.


  1. A great year of kind deeds. Thank you for sharing. My findings at the end of our own year of charitable deeds was a bit darker: I was disappointed that people around me didn't seem to step up. The neighborhood, which was nice as suburban neighborhoods go, remained pretty anonymous.

    But I know we, too, inspired readers. And, if nothing else, we helped a lot of people, our community, and taught our children something about the ease with which we can make a difference in other people's lives.

    (You can see my blog here:

  2. Dave - what an amazing year, one for which I'm sure you are proud. But more important than the specific gifts or acts you gave is the inspiration to others and the great feeling of accomplishment you feel. We all know and hear that giving is the best gift and in most cases that's a fact....but for sure you can see the impact your gifts have made on other people.

    I hope you will not lose your gift of expression that you have been able to share with so many of us throughout the year. Your blogs have inspired others....and from time to time we all will still need that inspiration. Congratulations and please blog us from time to time!

    Can you imagine what this world would be like if all of us committed to doing one act of kind deeds each day? Can you imagine it?

    Thanks, Dave.

  3. Wow! I just read your blog for the first time. I admit that I skipped over your other e-mails because I thought you wanted me to buy something (Boy was I wrong). Your blog has truly inspired me.
    What if a group of people took on the project together? There would be less pressure on one person if they had others to commit to "acts of kindness". If twelve people decided to work on the project, each person would be responsible for one month of kindness. Just an idea.

  4. Dave great to hear from you. I will have to admit that I am jealous of missing out on the same kind of impact you had tracking this for about a year. In my life I have always found with no pressure volunteering, or general acts of kindness for others, if personal, anonymous, or thru organizations, gives you more in return as peaceful feelings than people could every ask for. In todays times with people having the attitude whats in it for me, I think they miss out on just being happy with themselves or what they have. If in the process of getting all they can for themselves they thought of others, they wouldnt worry so much about what others might take from them. They might even see what others do for them in return. It doesnt have to have a monitary value, often it is just emotional support.
    I believe what Amy said, can you imagine what this world would be like if everyone did one act of kindness each day. Or maybe think of it this way if everyone was invested in each others well being each day. I thank you for reminding us how simple and ultimately rewarding this type of adventure can be. Enjoy it and continue to share it.
    thanks again Dave

    1. David,

      Truely an amazing feat. The impact of your actions are so powerful and sets an example for all of us.


  5. Hi David,

    Read about you in the CP today so I had to check out your site. You're truly inspirational, even if ya don't mean to be. Just by getting people thinking about these things will, I think, lead to more and more acts of random kindness. So thank you for blogging about your experiences and sharing with the world. Also, thanks to your blog post about Kiva, I have made a few loans. So thank you for making me aware of such an awesome organization!

    All the best!