April 26

Carpe Diem: The Power of Spontaneous Giving and Why We Shouldn’t Wait to be Kind.

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. Henry James.

Unsung Hero

I heard this uplifting tale on NPR’s Shankar Vedantam's Unsung Hero segment of the Hidden Brain podcast.

About 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Alexandra Middlewood, a political science professor at Wichita State University,  faced the challenge of teaching in a hybrid classroom setup—some of her students were physically present, while others attended via Zoom. Wearing a mask and microphone, she juggled engaging both audiences, a task that was no small feat in itself.

One particularly trying day, Ms. Middlewood’s microphone batteries died mid-lecture. So the virtual students couldn’t hear her. Overcome with self-doubt at that moment; she wondered if she’d be able to cope with the pressure of teaching a hybrid class all year.

The Rescuer

When she resumed her lecture, Ms. Middlewood noticed a student nodding his head —visible signs of engagement and understanding. In her words, the student was “Not just nodding in a way to signal that he's paying attention, but nodding emphatically in a way, at least that it seemed to me, that what I was trying to teach was resonating with him and his life experiences.”

That one simple act from that student energized and transformed Ms. Middlewood’s day and reminded her of why she became a teacher in the first place.


Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change. Bob Kerrey

Like many others in the Unsung Hero series, the story above is a beautiful reminder of how small gestures can make a big difference.

When we do something nice for someone, we feel good, whole, and fulfilled. Even the simplest acts, such as picking up coffee for a coworker or finally dropping off those clothes at the donation center, can generate a feel-good buzz that can last all day.

It is no secret that altruism—when we act in a way that prioritizes other people's interests without an ulterior selfish motive of our own—works. Research has repeatedly proven that we underestimate how beneficial it is to help others with our time or resources voluntarily. Acts of altruism and charity boost not just the recipient but also the well-being of the giver.

But intentions alone aren’t enough. It feels pretty great to think about doing good, but here’s the thing—when it comes to turning those good vibes into good deeds, acting fast is key.

Spontaneous Giving

Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped. David Rakoff

Here are a few reasons why immediacy in action—spontaneous giving, matters.

Motivation wanes. Fast.

I found two dollar bills on a trail run about five days ago, and guess what? They're still sitting on my desk. How have I not managed to donate them yet? The intention is genuine, but procrastination seems to be winning.

When a brilliant idea pops into our heads, we’re motivated and pumped, ready to make a difference. But simply sitting on an idea instead of executing it gives us opportunities to second-guess ourselves. Worse, we may get distracted and move on to other things. Spontaneous giving circumvents this problem altogether.

Generosity is contagious

The NY Times reported a story of how a customer paid not just for her coffee but also for the person behind her in line. Two hundred twenty-six customers in a row continued to do the same.

Generosity is contagious, which makes it all the more reason for us to strike while the iron is hot.

Timing matters

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. Ralph Waldo Emerson:

When there’s a serious crisis (an earthquake in the community) or a friend is having a bad day, immediacy matters. If we don't act immediately, this initial impulse can quickly dissipate, buried under the myriad of other demands vying for our attention, and by then, it may be too late.

There are times when our generosity can’t wait. That’s why it’s better to indulge in spontaneous giving instead of testing the waters, because who knows when it may just be too late.

Don’t overthink it

When someone is trying to be kind to you, you should let them. When you are kind to someone, assume the best outcome. The secret to a happy life. H. Jackson Brown Jr., author of Life's Little Instruction Book.

We often get caught up worrying or stressing about how our gestures or gifts might be misunderstood. I even wrote a book—Take My Money, Please­—about how challenging it was for me to give, fearing how I'd be perceived or whether the recipient would feel obligated to reciprocate.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. When that impulse to be kind hits us, we have to go with it and encourage spontaneous giving. There's no wrong way to show kindness.

It’s always a win-win

If nothing else, being proactive about helping others can seriously boost our own spirits. There is a profound sense of fulfillment that comes with knowing we’ve made a difference, however small that may be.

Acting when our motivation is highest not only maximizes this feeling but also reinforces our altruistic impulses, making it more likely that we’ll act quickly in the future.


If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito. Dalai Lama

Whether big or small, our immediate generous actions can have a ripple effect and spread positivity and kindness far beyond the initial act. So, when the urge strikes to give, don’t second-guess it.

Also, because something as important as giving cannot be left to the whims of dopamine rushes or lucky finds—who knows when I may next stumble upon money on a trail run—setting regular intervals for our giving is the smart approach.

Every single one of us, regardless of our station in life, has something to give. It's often easiest to begin by giving away what we have in abundance or things we don't really need. Eventually, we can progress to sharing the things we truly value. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Charity: a thing that begins at home and usually stays there. Elbert Hubbard



Can We Create Our Own Luck?

Can We Create Our Own Luck?
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