How secret acts of gratitude changed her conversations with her daughters
Three years ago on my 45th birthday, I took a group of my close girlfriends to dinner and had what I called a “celebration of friendship.” I was coming out the other end of a challenging time in my life, and for the first time in a long while, I felt strong and optimistic about my future. As I sat around this table of 20 women, watching them laugh and enjoy each other’s company, I couldn’t help but experience such gratitude for the kindness that each of them had brought into my life at some point. Feeling so fortunate to be in that position, I was also determined never to lose sight of where I had just come from.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” During the difficult period of my life I leaned strongly on the philosophy of Buddhism. Among other lessons, I learned that the gift of giving not only brings abundant satisfaction and happiness to the giver, but it also can create a ripple effect: one small act of kindness can mean so much to so many.
And so I began a 12-month project. I decided that each week for one year I would pick up the bill for someone at a coffee shop and leave before they knew.
This simple act was something I really looked forward to, and it became so much more than just buying a meal or coffee. For me, it was a study in human nature, a break from technology, and an opportunity to let someone know they had been seen. In this fast-paced life of faceless and nameless people, I wanted them to know that — of all the people in the restaurant — they had been noticed.
I often did this at the same coffee shop where the owner knew me and knew the drill. Don’t ask any questions, don’t ever let them know who I am, and don’t tell them until I have left. He would just laugh and shake his head, but the smile on his face and the knowledge that he too was part of this act of kindness added to the experience.
In order to choose who would be the recipient, I spent a lot of time studying people, their body language, and their actions. One time it was an exhausted mum whose child had spilled her baby’s warm milk all over the table, and I recognized that fine line between her calm demeanor and an almighty meltdown. Or the young man who picked up the menu, his eyes immediately darting to the right of the page to check out the prices before reading what was on offer. There was a sweet elderly man who would wipe his upper lip with his handkerchief after every sip of his cappuccino. He sat alone staring out into the park across the road.
Each one of these people had their own story to tell and each one deserved to be seen and validated.
One Saturday I shared with my daughters what I had been doing, and their response was priceless. “Wait, what do you mean,” asked my older daughter, confused. “You just paid for that guy’s meal?” “Yes, and I have been doing this for some time because it makes me feel good,” I responded. Both girls laughed and laughed, not because they were surprised, but because in their words, “that is such a cool thing to do.”
And so it became a family project, but it was also our secret. We would go out for coffee or breakfast and decide together whom we would choose and why. The observations, the conversations, and the link back to humanity were again another wonderful aspect to this project. No longer would the girls be consumed with taking photos of their meals to upload to social media. Instead, we talked. We talked about life, struggles, and why some people find themselves in the positions they are in. We talked about empathy, understanding, and the need to educate ourselves. But most importantly, we talked about our social responsibility to help others when we can.
Our experiment is now over, and I have moved on to other projects — all with the common thread of giving back and helping others. Fifty-two coffees have been given away, and in that moment, 52 people have been reminded that there is kindness in the world. My hope is that many use that feeling and pay it forward to another.