Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Cool to be kind: Spreading a little happiness

Published: 21 February 2007
The Independent

The boy in the hooded top sizes me up. "Wanker!" he says. "Perv!" shouts his mate. "Paedo!" laughs another. I look deep into their adolescent eyes, and deliver my pre-scripted reply: "Are you sure you don't just need a good hug?" Apparently, they don't. The boys disappear into the Oxford Street crowds, and I carry on walking up the pavement, holding a large sign that offers sympathetic hugs to any Monday afternoon shoppers who might "really need it".

To most passers-by in this part of central London, I must look like another lonely oddball going about his daily business. But most passers-by would be wrong. Despite the "hug me" sign and plastic smile, I do not crave love and affection; instead I'm a slightly embarrassed investigative reporter taking part in a serious social experiment.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when western Christians celebrate the start of Lent. In keeping with tradition, millions of Britons will forego one of life's treats (chocolate, alcohol, sweets, etc) for 40 days and 40 nights.
This year though, things are different. Reasoning, rightly, that most resolutions add nothing to the sum of human happiness, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has launched a campaign to rebrand Lent. Its name is, "Love Life, Live Lent".

The principle behind his brainchild is simple. Instead of giving something up, Anglicans are encouraged to spend time each day being "generous to yourself, your neighbours, and the world". Like good boy scouts, followers must do one good deed each day.

To help them, the Church of England has published a book of "simple actions" that followers can perform during Lent, and invited churchgoers to sign up for text message alerts, in which they will be contacted with one act of kindness to perform each day between now and Easter.

It will provide a religious take on an intriguing international trend. In recent years, in different corners of the globe, several movements have sprung up inviting followers to combat the selfishness of modern life by doing nice things to random strangers.
Today, I want in on the act. In one 24-hour period, I shall attempt to carry out all 40 of the church's acts of kindness. With luck, it will make a small difference to the daily life of a handful of complete strangers, and provide me with a warm glow.

Yet it may also help answer some big questions. Are random acts of kindness an enduring human trait? Can we find time to perform them in the hurly-burly of modern life? Will those on the receiving end really care?
First, I must walk up Oxford Street carrying a silly sign. You see, one of the 40 "actions" I must perform is to "hug someone who needs it". A few minutes later, I find my man. Mutu works near Oxford Circus Tube station, holding up a sign pointing towards a golf sale. He's cold, bored, and he earns minimum wage. If anyone needs a hug, it is Mutu. And after a bit of talking, he agrees.

I hold tight, share some love, and ask him to smile for a camera. Then I offer him some fruit. He accepts, which is helpful, because it allows me to "give someone an apple", number 14 on the list. That's two acts of kindness down, 38 to go.

If you put your mind to it, carrying out acts of kindness can start as soon as you wake up. You can be kind to people in different parts of the country, or on the other side of the world, or even be kind to the planet itself, without leaving your home.

So I "turn off the tap when I clean my teeth", drink an ethical coffee (I've been instructed to "buy a Fairtrade product") having only "filled the kettle with the water I need". I forego a bacon sandwich in favour of muesli, since this is an opportunity to "have a meat-free day".

In keeping with the Archbishop of Canterbury's sandal-wearing public image, many of his "simple actions" are aimed at combating climate-change, or otherwise helping the environment. This Lent, he advises Anglicans to "put on a jumper and turn down the heat in your house", and to "buy a low-energy lightbulb". Oh, and "don't leave the TV or hi-fi on standby".

I do all of the above in a jiffy. Yet however helpful or nice, or eco-friendly these small domestic acts are, they are really just a warm-up act for the main event of being randomly kind to strangers.

That very important task involves leaving the house and heading off into our capital city, a journey during which I tick off number seven - "give up my place to someone who is in a rush". Modern commuter-train etiquette is a tricky subject - the comedian Jimmy Carr never gives up his seat since (he says) it's better to see four pregnant women standing than one fat girl sitting down in tears - but we get there in the end.

I hurry to Oxfam on Marylebone High Street, because I'm looking to "give a friend a good book or CD", and quickly get very lucky. They're selling a Kim Wilde cassette for 49p, the greatest Bee Gees album ever (The Very Best of the Bee Gees) for £2.99, and EastEnders' Mike Reid's groundbreaking autobiography T'rific for £4.50.

All told, it's bashed into the till for £7.98. I wince. "Could we do a deal?" I ask. Libam, the volunteer behind the counter, isn't sure. "Since I'm buying three of them, how about we call it £10." He pauses. "OK, OK," I say. "I'll give £12, but that's my final offer."

Libam agrees. "Thank you very much," he says, not handing me any change. "Not at all," I reply. I've just managed to "buy something at the local charity shop, and reverse haggle". Another tick.

Next, it's off to Leicester Square, to "plant some seeds where the flowers will be seen". I also draft a quick note to Westminster council, informing it of what I've just done. I'd been asked to "visit a park and then write to the council to tell them what you think".

Next I manage (illegally) to "feed the birds" in Trafalgar Square. I also visit a phone box to make a call to "find out about blood or organ donation" and "leave a £1 coin where someone will find it", just above the receiver. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Finally, I find some half-price daffodils in Waitrose and give a bunch to a local flower-seller. The recipient of the attempt to "purchase a buy-one-get-one-free and give the free one away" is called Chris and comes from Eastern Europe, so our brief encounter also constitutes "having a conversation with someone from a different culture".

Like most good ideas, the "Love Life, Live Lent" campaign began life in a pub. Five years ago, the comedian Danny Wallace founded an organisation known as the Karma Army, which now boasts several thousand members. Its purpose is to carry out one random act of kindness each Friday.
Wallace chronicled the birth of his movement in the book Join Me!, and has given the CoE permission to use some of his suggested charitable acts - known as "Good Fridays" - in its literature for the current project.
"We tend to brush kindness under the carpet, or lose our nerve, or worry people might think we're odd if we go up to a stranger and do something nice," Wallace tells me. "But everyone wins from kindness. The person being kind gets a buzz from it, as much as the person on the receiving end benefits.

"It's win-win. There's so much cynicism, but what you realise is that there's much more fun to be had in being nice to people."

With this in mind, I walk to Borough Market to "use local shops rather than supermarkets". In Neal's Yard Dairy, I grab some stilton, and ask the assistant to let me pay for the girl behind me, thus managing to "buy something for someone anonymously".

Then, having gazed longingly at butchers' vans being unloaded (meat is still verboten) it's off to nearby Southwark Cathedral, where I can tick off the requirement to "find an open church and pay it a visit", and also to "spend some time in silence".

In the coffee shop, I meet the magnificently named Reverend Tina Turner, the vicar of St Christopher's in Croydon, south London. She takes me back into the cathedral to "light a candle and pray for someone", before agreeing to "read St John's Gospel, chapter 19" to me. It's a harrowing, slightly gory passage covering the trial and persecution of Jesus.

To clear our heads, we "go for a walk with friends in the neighbourhood", allowing me to "pick up litter", and quiz Ms Turner on some of my misgivings about the random acts of kindness the church has suggested.
Is it not dangerous for the church to suggest that "having a TV-free day" (as I am) or giving up meat for 24 hours is always a good thing? Doesn't this suggest that watching telly is immoral? Or that hamburgers are the food of the Devil?

"I don't think it's about moral versus immoral," she responds. "It's about doing something different from what you'd normally do, and asking yourself why don't I do this more often?

"The traditional purpose of giving things up in Lent is to help self-examination and penitence. The idea is to give something up so you can focus on God. But it's become watered-down: you have the self-denial, but not the other side of the coin - self-examination. The kindness campaign is about focusing on the other side of that coin."

As we say our goodbyes, a case in point. Outside a local coffee shop, I spot a man in his fifties enjoying a drink. I ask whether I can sit next to him, explaining that it would be nice to "have a conversation with someone from a different generation". He agrees. His name is John.

John is house-hunting, since bailiffs are attempting to evict him from his current dwelling. The landlord failed to keep up payments on his mortgage. "Fortunately, my wife works at the Belgian embassy so we've been able to claim diplomatic immunity," he says. "They can't turf us out. But I don't want to stay there for ever, so here I am."
John is already a devotee of random acts of kindness. He tries to do one every day, and says it makes him feel great. "Even if it's a miserable old cow in the post office, if you can make her smile when you're paying for a stamp, you've done something worthwhile. I've been doing it for years, but I don't think of it as a random act of kindness. I think of it as being human."

And in a way, he has a point.

Today, British churchgoers will be texted with the first of their 40 instructions, and it will be to "make someone laugh". I begin my search for laughter by ticking off another instruction: "go to a party". John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, has invited friends to the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair, to launch an exhibition by Robert Lenkiewicz.

The event offers a chance to "say something nice about someone behind their back" and "make a drink for a friend or colleague" (or at least pour one). It also allows John to share his favourite joke with me: "There's a new Liverpudlian version of Silence of the Lambs coming out... it's called "Shut Up, Youse".

If anyone understands kindness, it ought to be Bird, whose homelessness charity is underpinned by the generosity of Big Issue readers and donors. "An act of kindness is a kind of encapsulation of humanity," he says. "If you are nice to an animal, you are expressing humanity. If you are nice to a person, you are also expressing humanity. When someone asked Plato what the purpose of life is, he replied that it's love. And kindness is just one step removed from love.

"It's a universal thing, too. Even in the darkest days of Rwanda or the Holocaust there's always little acts of kindness. It's funny, but people do these little things. You can never be paid for it. There's never a motive. It's just something you do."

To Bird and other believers, random acts of kindness affirm our existence. Some, like the decision to "ring a loved one" (my mum, on the way home) or "do a chore for someone" (dishes for my flatmate, when I get there) are things we do every day.

Others, like the moth I later liberate in an effort to "help a bug out of the house rather than squash it", or the cream tea I forewent earlier, in order to "miss a meal and pray instead", are things most people would class as a one-off.

Yet doing all of them, and thinking about why (I must "now write to someone [the Rev Tina] and thank them") teach us that modern life doesn't have to be all miserable, unfriendly, and selfish. And it's rather uplifting.

The clock passes 1am before I reach the end of the list of kindness. I have just tried to "bake something and share it" (wrong flour makes it inedible), and now only one task remains: "phone someone to say goodnight".
Feeling a warm glow of self-satisfaction (though I can't tell whether it's from simply finishing the list, or actually helping people), I call Mutu, the billboard man I hugged earlier in the day, and leave a message.
Sadly, he never replies. Kind I may be, but deep down I suspect that he probably thinks I'm completely mad.

Who else is spreading the joy?
Small Kindness Movement
The Small Kindness Movement was born in Japan in the 1960s, "while the Japanese society was undergoing rapid post-war development [and] young people were missing their ideals and purposes of life, their energy [being] poured into student movements". A Professor Kaya instead urged people to be kind, "so that it will become the habit of our society".
World Kindness Movement
The Singapore-based WKM, which is funded by the government, was formed in 1997 and established a World Kindness Day (13 November).Activities include a Courtesy Campaign, which suggests good manners for every situation.

Bright Smile Movement
The South Korean BSM's website says: "Korea also have suffered from invasions more than 930 through 5,000 years' history, ruled under Japan, war between same people, division, dictatorship, IMF, etc. Our nation was the one of most unfortunate people in the world. But Korean have overcome tribulations with smile keeping hope. We want to share the power... of creating smile."

Extreme Kindness Crew
Formed in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, this foursome have clocked up 50,180 acts of kindness - from giving out free fruit, to massaging strangers, tiling roofs and breaking in wild horses - and have also staged kindness "protests".

Chloe's Peace Brigade
"Welcome, everyone, to our groovy gravy Peace Brigade booklet sort of thing," begins Chloe's teenage treatise on why we should all smile, pay compliments to our enemies and clean our rooms, first posted online last September. "Just because we're not adults doesn't mean we can't help change the world," she continues, before suggesting a page full of kindness tips for teens.

The Scary Guy, aka 'the new face of love'
The intro on Scary Guy's website announces: "I've got one mission and one mission only, the total elimination of hate, violence and prejudice. Worldwide." This American biker's anti-bullying school tours have been greeted rapturously.

Free Hugs Guy
The Australian known as Juan Mann ("one man") began by holding up a placard offering "free hugs" in Sydney and became a global phenomenon after a friend posted a video of Juan on YouTube. "It's a way to make people smile," he says.

UK Kindness organisations:
The Karma Army (
British organisers of Karmageddon, an annual London festival of RaoK (random acts of kindness).
Kindness Scotland (
Scottish members of the WKM. The organisation runs, among other activities, the Kind Kids Scheme.
Campaign for Courtesy (
Formerly the Polite Society, it has themed campaigns each year, for example "politeness in sport".
Act Against Bullying (
This member of the UK Kindness Movement has initiated "B Decent for a Day", with the strapline, "it's cool to be kind".
Kate Burt


Rhiannon said...

Will come back to this later - loved the article !

Susanne said...

Okay, I just put my comment to this post under the post "ebb and flow"... Sorry.