The idea of paying it forward caught the public’s imagination when Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel “Pay It Forward” was turned into a movie in 2000, starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey.
The idea is simple: Act on an impulse of spontaneous generosity toward a stranger and hopefully you will start a chain reaction. At each step, the receiver of generosity becomes a giver. Rather than repay the help you receive, “pay it forward” by helping someone else.
Does this work in practice? In other words, if you receive or merely observe (bystander effect) an act of help, are you more likely to help someone else? Is the sequence socially contagious?
In their hectic lives, in which hard-up college students juggle between studies, work, and family, how contagious can the ideas of “paying it forward” be for them?
Hilda, a community college student, who also works for a non-profit health facility, remembers giving a disabled woman her bottle of water on a hot day. She has no idea whether any ‘pay it forward’ occurred in the days that followed. On another occasion, she saw a homeless man sleeping in front of a Walgreens store. She gave him a water bottle, a cup of yogurt, some cheese sticks and an apple that she had left over from lunch. She saw a woman observing her. As she was leaving the store, Hilda saw the woman giving the homeless man some money. Since then, Hilda has started an Instagram project in which she posts pictures and stories about ‘paying it forward,’ in the hope of sparking spontaneous generosity among people.
“I have read many stories about paying it forward,” says Cristina. “Reading about random acts of kindness gives me hope. I see the good in people in a society that can be mean and cruel. I have never been in a “chain” of giving, but several times I have given food to a homeless person, taken groceries to a family in need, given a ride, helped a family whose car had broken down. It makes me feel good that I can do something for someone, just to do it. This is not easy for me to talk about, because it is not about me and my actions. I have given from the heart and not thought twice. There is a phrase I have passed on to my children and grandchildren: ‘Do not let the right hand see what the left hand is doing.’”
Nina believes that long-term happiness depends on giving rather than receiving. “My random act of kindness consists of lending someone a pencil or tutoring them in a subject for 10 minutes or so. These things cost me nothing, yet they make me feel good. These small habits can develop into something more. Recently, my 10-minute tutoring sessions have turned into several hour-long sessions on Fridays. It's gotten to the point that almost all the students in my school knows me as ‘that girl who can totally help you pass math, no matter what grade you're in!’ In turn, I see students I teach helping their peers when I'm busy. So those students, without thinking about it, are paying it forward!”
Rigoberto is grateful for the chance of helping a poor family member living in Mexico, a place where food is hard to come by and money is scarce. It happened that this man needed surgery. Rigoberto sent him the money he needed. “I know I am not rich but with the little that I have, I know I can always help someone. I am confident this spirit will rub off on him. Who can predict where this will end?”
To Derek, the idea of “pay it forward” gives him faith in humanity. “There is nothing I like better than seeing people from small towns coming to the craziness that sometimes can be San Jose. I remember a man in his thirties at Costco saying ‘Hi’ to everyone he passed and tipping his hat. If you have ever been to Costco you know that’s a lot of hat tipping!”
Genevieve feels that people often forget what it means to be generous and to give without expecting anything in return. “People have become selfish. To them, paying it forward would be going too far out of their way. Fortunately, I have been at both the receiving and giving end of ‘paying it forward.’ Several times, people in front of me have paid for my order at places like Starbucks and Jamba Juice. I remember the first time someone paid for my toll. As I approached the booth, I realized that I did not have any cash on hand. Luckily, the attendant told me that it was paid for by the SUV in front of me. I cannot describe the relief and appreciation I felt at that moment! Since then, I have paid the tolls for people behind me on several occasions.”
Allison has been on the receiving end of a pay-it-forward system. “I grew up very poor and often had difficulty getting the food we needed from the grocery store. I watched as strangers opened their wallets and handed my mother a five-dollar bill so my sister and I could get the fruit we wanted. My mom has also paid it forward when she has seen a struggling mom in the same situation. Whenever I have run into an instance that someone has paid for me, I feel like I am obligated to either pay them back or pay it forward for the next person. I have bought food for a co-worker who didn’t have money, and the same has happened to me. The growing trend of picking up someone’s coffee tab has happened to me at Starbucks. When I got to the counter to order my drink, the guy just waved it off because the girl in front of me, a complete stranger, had paid for it. I ended up paying for the person behind me. Paying it forward just makes me happy!”
Matthew feels that random acts of kindness are not seen much in today’s society. “We are living in a society where we are too busy and completely caught up in our own lives. The more considerate people are to each other, the better this place will be. My personal random act of kindness was when I was renting out a room to a friend. We had a pretty close friendship. He was always respectful and paid his rent on time. A year and a half later, he lost his job and was stressing because even if he were to go on unemployment, he wouldn’t have enough money to pay his bills and the rent. Having been in a similar situation, I told him to focus on his school and not worry about the rent. I considered him a part of my family. He was forever grateful for what I did and is living much better now. It happened that for a class for which I had enrolled, I didn’t have the appropriate calculator. I posted a Facebook listing asking if anyone was willing to sell his calculator. That same night, he showed up on my doorstep and simply gave me his!”
Charles was introduced to paying it forwards as a bystander in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I was mountain biking with a buddy. We had paused to drink some water and take in the scenery when, in the distance, we heard a loud explosion. Two men came into the clearing where we were resting, pushing their bikes. The inner tube of one of the bikes belonging to a middle-aged man had exploded because it was installed incorrectly. His companion, an athletic looking Irishman with a matching bike, rummaged through his backpack and came up empty. They didn’t have a spare tube but my friend did, which he promptly offered it to the older man. The man was grateful, asked for my friend’s address and told him he would send him money for the tube. My friend said: “It’s cool, just pay it forward.” Merely witnessing my friend’s generosity was enough to instill this concept of paying it forward in my heart. Several months later, I left home alone on a mountain bike excursion with no spare tube and got a flat tire. I wandered about in the woods, soliciting help from groups of mountain bikers until a kind man gave me a tube. “I’ll buy you a tube, what’s your number?” I asked. “Pay it forward,” was his response. I would like to propose a P.I.F.R. (pay it forward revolution) to soften the hearts of Americans and make the world more hospitable for people without large networks of support.
Jon was once part of a ‘car chain’ at an In-N-Out Burger. “I was with my baseball team in Tracy when we stopped for lunch. One of the parents in front of me paid for my food. I was genuinely surprised when I reached the booth and decided to add to the chain as the few cars behind me were also parents from my team. I'm not sure how far back we went but it was pretty cool and I definitely felt like extending the generosity. I knew all these people so they were not strangers but it was still one random act of kindness extending from one person to another to another. These are the kind of simple pleasures that stand out in memory!”