You’ve probably heard of the concept “Pay it back,” but have you ever heard of paying it forward? The idea came from Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book Pay it Forward, which came out in January 2000. Warner Brothers Studio then made the book into a movie, with the same title and idea, making the concept world-famous. The movie is about a 12-year-old boy who comes up with an amazing assignment idea about world change. Describing it to his teacher and mother, he says, “It’s called pay it forward. If I help three people and then they ask how they can pay me back, I’ll say don’t pay it back, pay it forward, and those three will go and help three more people. So nine people are helped. And it keeps going and going.”
Anybody can use this strategy in their lives. It starts with doing a favor for someone and not expecting to be paid back. The favors can be big or small. Paying it forward also doesn’t necessarily have to do with doing acts of kindness; it can also be sharing your struggles and insights so that others can reflect and benefit from your experience.
Here are a few ways to help you get better at being able to pay it forward:
- Know that something positive can be found in even the most uncomfortable experiences. This is easy to say when life is all luvvy dubby, but things like sick pets, hard lessons, and outlook-altering experiences can be tough lessons. Anything that disrupts your world and routine is a big thing. But benefits can often be found in every situation. They make you more prepared for the next time and give you the ability to fight adversity, learn something new, and solve a problem.
- Everyone has the power of communication. When things happen, pause and think about the lessons learned. How can you make the world, or at least your world, a bit better through this experience?
- Understand that societies share many sentiments. Though you may feel very alone when going through a hard situation, the truth is that many other people are also going through the same thing. Yes, the precise circumstance of the death, job loss, illness, or crime may change or be slightly different, but the thoughts, self-talk, and emotions connected with it likely aren’t. Worry, disappointment, sadness, anger, regret, uncertainty, fear? These are natural human conditions, and when you are in them, you are never alone.
- Life is a continuum. Where you are in life—spiritually, physically, emotionally—is not exactly where somebody else is. Even though somebody could have the same experience as you, you may have reacted faster or done something differently. This is why people benefit from other’s experiences or “trial and errors.”
- It isn’t always about you. Sometimes it feels like horrible things happen to good people, that we are given bad experiences to teach someone else in the process. Do sudden deaths, divorces, illnesses, and hardships happen to people to be a lesson to others? They might be, and you would do well to see them that way.
When you do small acts of kindness for friends or strangers, it’s just a matter of time before it comes back to you. This is not the same as someone paying you back though. By having a positive attitude and being kind, good things will happen to you. Why? Call it cause and effect; you will attract good people into your life, end up in better circumstances—because your attitude helps make them better!—and appreciate everything good around you. Below are some examples of small acts of kindness that you can put to work today:
Put a quarter in any meter that’s about to expire.
Leave a copy of a really good book that you’ve read in a cafe for somebody else to read.
Be polite to customer service people who are trying to help you with technical difficulties.
Tip your restaurant service generously.
Give a warm coat to a homeless person.
Make a donation.
Send a box of bagels or muffins to a construction site.
Personally thank cooks, bussers, and servers.
Give a tourist tips about local stores, restaurants, etc.
Equally show respect to all people, whether men or women.
Put money in a street performer’s jar.
Help a pregnant lady.
Let someone cut into of you in a supermarket.
Encourage people to follow their dreams.
Hold the door for someone.
Smile at someone who’s sad.
Give up your seat on a crowded ferry, bus, or train.
Contribute to a friend’s child’s education.
Show respect to a soldier regardless of your pacifism.
Replace an angry thought towards someone with a loving thought.
If paying it forward really is that simple and helpful to you and everyone else, then why do some people have trouble doing it? Most people say, “Why should I do something for nothing… why should I help someone who has never helped me… why would I help a stranger?”
To put it in more accurate terms, you’re not just doing it for others, you are doing it for yourself. Yes, the person you help might pass it along and set off a chain reaction, or they may just grunt and keep being miserable. But it doesn’t matter because you’ve done your part and will get a rush of “feel-good.”
If you are one of those who takes pleasure from the misfortune of others, and are seen as a grumpy, mean person, you might find this experience dizzying, but don’t fear. The weird feeling pulsing through your bloodstream is the feeling of good. People might actually start smiling and being nice to you. You will start to love it and love yourself.
If you like to wallow in self-pity, don’t worry, because these feelings are only temporary. If you do kind acts, you will feel better about yourself, because it will make you feel more alive, appreciated, wanted, useful, and fulfilled. If you are suddenly positive and happy, everybody will notice and will react positively to you. However, if feeling good just makes you feel worse, you can always go back to being depressed; nobody will notice.