One Small Difference

“I don’t know what to do. It feels like my life is falling apart,” Angela told her therapist, tears streaming down her face..

Months earlier, her mother succumbed to COVID-19. Her marriage was on the rocks. Her teenage children were aloof and disrespectful all the time. A huge deadline loomed at work requiring sixty-hour-weeks for the foreseeable future. Quality sleep was elusive.

It felt like things couldn’t get much worse.

“I’m going to write you a prescription that will make you feel much better,” she reassured, scribbling furiously on a pad.

She handed the piece of paper to Angela. It read:

Try every single day to make a small difference in someone else’s life.

Angela was confused. How would this fix her problems?

She was nice to people — for the most part. She used to volunteer at the local women’s shelter years ago but gave it up once they started a family. Thinking back, it was an unusually happy time in her life.

“The antidote to unhappiness in your life is to create happiness in the lives of others. When we do nice — and unexpected — things for others, it has a powerful effect in our own lives. It results in positive feelings that take the place of the worry and preoccupation with our own problems. It’s impossible for the heart to feel both positive and negative feelings at the same time.”

“But there’s so much need in the world,” Angela answered. “How can I possibly make a difference?”

“I would encourage you to start small — and at home. Do nice things for your husband and kids without expecting anything in return. You will find your relationships improving in no time. Then do the same for friends, extended family, and strangers. It doesn’t matter if they realize it was you, as long as you know, the positive feelings you get are the same. Just commit to making a small difference in someone else’s life once a day. That’s it.”

Angela left the office with a burst of positivity. The first thing she did was compliment the receptionist on her earrings, which she wanted to do on the way in before she got distracted by a text. The smile on her face after the compliment warmed Angela’s heart.

Over the next week, Angela took her therapist’s recommendation to the extreme. She set a goal of five per day. She paid for an order behind her in the Starbucks drive-thru, called a high school friend she hadn’t spoken to in forever, baked warm cookies for an elderly neighbor, went on a long bike ride with her kids, bought a watch for her husband that he had been eyeing, comforted a coworker at the office, and brought her dad’s favorite dessert to him at the retirement home.

Pretty soon she was so full of positive feelings she found herself forgetting about her own problems.

In his book Easier Than You Think, Dr. Richard Carlson recalls this story about one of his lectures:

Several years ago I gave a lecture to a room full of enthusiastic people in a large U.S. city. I felt I had done a good job and covered a variety of topics. Almost immediately upon returning home, I started receiving dozens of letters, e-mails, and phone calls. One hundred percent of this response was caused by a single suggestion. It also happened to be the simplest suggestion I made, the one that required the smallest change.

That suggestion was to try every single day to make a small difference in someone else’s life.

Rather than give you my own list of ways to make a difference, I’ll share with you a few of the ideas that came directly from that audience. Each suggestion might take anywhere from a minimum of five seconds of your time to a maximum of five minutes. All are very simple, and only a few of them cost anything. Even with those that do, the cost is nominal.

The personal benefit, however, is huge in terms of how you’ll feel when you go to bed at night. As you think back on your day, you’ll realize that you made a positive difference in the life of another human being. Sometimes the people you help will know it was you who did it, and other times they will never know. Sometimes your efforts are noticed and appreciated; other times they are not. None of this matters. All that matters is that you know and that you get the positive feelings that result.

Many people who heard his message started to implement in their lives and raved about the results:

Almost everyone who practices this strategy tells me it’s one of their favorite parts of the day. With almost zero effort, they get to feel good, they know they are making a positive difference, and they never again complain that one person can’t make a difference. They now know that each of us does make a difference every single day simply by the way we act in the world. Plus, we get to imagine a world where everyone else is doing the same thing. When we try to make a difference, even on a very small scale, it’s extremely satisfying and nourishing.

Here are ideas for ways you can brighten the day of other people. Notice in every case the change to your own routine is extremely minimal.

  • Pick up litter in someone else’s yard or property.
  • Pay someone else’s toll behind you on the bridge or expressway.
  • Smile at a cashier and tell them what a great job they are doing.
  • Send a “Thinking of You” greeting card in the mail, the old-fashioned way.
  • Do the same with email.
  • Call someone just to say, “I love you,” or for some other nice reason.
  • Think of people in your life who do many things for others. Realize that they are probably not used to being thanked very often. So call just to say thank you on behalf of all they do. Again, don’t ask for anything in return.
  • When you’re in a conversation and someone wants to be right, let them.
  • Send an anonymous donation to your favorite charity and don’t tell anyone about it.
  • On a similar note, if a friend is in need, consider doing something to help but don’t ever let him or her know you did it.
  • Smile at strangers on the street until you get someone to smile back. Eventually someone will.
  • This came from an eleven-year-old girl: clean up your sister’s room.
  • Cut someone else’s grass.
  • Pick some flowers and bring them home for your loved one.

I could go on and on. But more important, you can create your own list of ideas and start incorporating them into your life. Making others feel good and doing nice things for people simply makes you feel better in the process — a win-win-situation. This small change is well worth the effort.

Occasionally we perform random acts of kindness for others, but there’s definitely some room for improvement. On my birthday, I received a huge Nothing Bundt Cake from my aunt and uncle in the mail. There’s no way we could eat it all before it went bad, so we cut it up and surprised a number of our friends with a cake delivery.

Tomorrow we are going to swing buy our favorite sweet tea place and buy some for our friends as a surprise. It is the small, personal gestures of kindness that provide the biggest returns of positive feelings.

Do you have any examples of random acts of kindness you have performed for others? Answer in the comments.

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