Years ago, I struggled through an airport with my toddler and a heap of coats and carry-ons to catch a 6 a.m. flight. After making my way through the security line, I landed by the gate with my laptop still hanging out of my briefcase and my sock-footed son trying to make a run for it.
I stared longingly at Starbucks. It was only 15 yards away, but it might as well have been 15 miles, since a loudspeaker kept warning that leaving your bags unattended was not allowed.
Then I noticed a well-heeled woman observing me. As she walked toward me, I was sure she was going to reprimand me for being such a disorganized mess. But instead she leaned over and said, “How do you take it?”
“Huh?” I said, confused.
“Your coffee, how do you take it?”
I stammered out “cream and sugar,” and watched in shock as she waited in line and brought back a lifesaving Venti. She waved off the money I offered and went back to her fashion magazine with a little smile.
I felt the uplifting effect of unexpected kindness firsthand that morning. Ever since, I’ve been inspired to look for little creative ways to make someone’s day. Here are a few favorites to kick off this season of giving.
A very welcome wagon
The next time a new family moves in down the street, avoid that accepting-food-from-strangers weirdness by skipping the traditional batch of brownies. Instead, take over a welcome-to-the-neighborhood folder filled with local takeout and delivery menus. Highlight a few recommendations and include a gift certificate to a favorite. It’ll come in handy before the pots and pans get unpacked.
Give Mrs. Johnson a call
Parents of old childhood friends usually still live in the same town, even if their kids have relocated because of marriage or jobs. Often, these moms or dads stood in for our own parents in times of need when we were growing up. While calling “Mrs. Johnson” can also get you updated information on how to catch up with an old girlfriend, don’t forget to thank her for that time you (accidentally!) broke her window and she didn’t tell your mom. It will make her day.
Make your own express lane
“One night at the grocery store I saw a mom who looked even more frazzled than I was,” says Emily Weaver. “She had two toddlers, as opposed to my one toddler and 7-year-old. One was throwing a tantrum and the other was crying because her brother was screaming. Even though she had a huge cart of groceries, I let her go in front of me in line. I figured the least I could do was let this mom get out of there 10 minutes earlier than she would have.”
Share a little polish
Buy a few home spa products and invite over two of your friends who don’t know each other (but might share things in common) for a mini-spa party. If they hit it off, you’ve spread the joy of new friendship over a pedicure.
Compliment random strangers
Be specific and the compliments will really hit home. “That’s a great dress on you, the green brings out your eyes,” makes a woman stand taller and exude an inner joy. Or, “I love your glasses/scarf/earrings.” Do this once a day for a month and you’ll find it becomes an addictive and happily unbreakable habit.
Thanks, mom! Love, your baby
Sending a modest bouquet of flowers or a small basket of cookies or muffins with a note saying, “Thanks for all your hard work, Mom! Love, Baby” does wonders for a new mom who’s facing an emotionally challenging first day back at work after maternity leave. Or you might ask a stay-at-home mom out to lunch on her child’s first day at kindergarten or preschool. It will relieve a huge amount of stress and break up what might otherwise seem like a long and bittersweet day.
Surprise service providers with a treat
On a whim, I hit the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru on my way to pick up my car after some minor engine work. When I gave the mechanic the box of doughnuts, he turned bright pink in pleased shock that a customer would think of his crew. It cost only $6, but it made their entire morning. Bring a dozen bagels with a tub of flavored cream cheese ($9–$14) for the staff at the pediatrician’s office or the hair salon. An unintended side benefit is that you’re treated like a priority customer in the future.
You’re never too old to write that fan letter
Unexpected notes of appreciation can brighten almost anyone’s day. “Writing can be a lonely job with little or no immediate feedback,” says Candie Moonshower, author of The Legend of Zoey. “Whenever I get a nice fan letter, it lifts my spirits and gives me a motivational kickstart!”
Put a sick kid first
“When I took my 5-year-old, Holly, to the ER, she was very quiet and brave as we waited,” says Amy Cady of Sydney, Australia. “After about 40 minutes I got up and asked a nurse how many patients were ahead of us, and she said 15. When the gentleman who was next in line overheard this, he asked the nurse to swap his spot with Holly. Then the 14 people ahead of me got up one by one and asked to swap with the man. It was like the climax of a beautiful movie!”
Send a service
If an elderly or sick neighbor is lagging in her usual yard care, ask if she’d like a little help. Then, hire a teenager you know to spend a few hours raking leaves, shoveling snow or weeding the flower garden—whatever needs to get done. The job will put a much-appreciated $15 or $20 in the kid’s pocket and give a good neighbor a helping hand.
“I loved making a ‘Dear Baby’ journal for a friend who was pregnant,” says Carmella Van Vleet of Lewis Center, Ohio. “Since I talked to her practically every day, I just kept notes in the journal for the month before her son was born. I wrote things like, ‘Dear Baby, Today your mom did…Today your mom was thinking about…’ I also ‘casually’ asked her about her childhood and how she met her husband, then wrote about those things, too.”
Record songs to remember when
“To send something special to old high school friends, I search iTunes by year and make a CD mix of hits from our graduation year,” says Margie Anderson of Fairview Heights, Illinois. “When my friend’s son was going to college, I gave her a CD of songs that were popular the year he was born. Hearing those old songs really takes you back to those days.”