Picture it: You’re sitting in a packed Starbucks, all the tables taken. You were lucky enough to grab one, but now you see a fellow writer, coffee cup in one hand and laptop case in the other, morosely checking the corners for an empty spot he knows he will not find. You realize your table is not tiny, so you move some things around and wave him over with a smile, offering the free seat and half the table space.
At the very least, when you do this, you’re making someone’s day a little bit brighter, and that in itself is probably worth it. But really what you’re doing is way bigger than that: you’re creating a person MUCH MORE likely to share his table in the future. The next time he’s in a crowded coffee shop he might remember you and offer half his table to a stranger, who will in their own turn think of sharing theirs, and six months from now you walk into a standing-room-only Starbucks and a person you don’t even realize is your Great-Great-Great-Grandchild-of-Sharing smiles and points to their table.
And it’s not just the person you share with who can be influenced by your kind gesture. People sitting nearby will see you do it, and it will occur to them that that’s something they could do as well. Maybe next time they will (thus creating another sharer of their own). Or someone who has only just started dragging their laptop to Starbucks will see you and assume that this is an obvious part of coffee shop culture. So they’ll do it, next time they have room and see someone in need.
It’s not just sharing, either. Letting baristas know about empty containers at the condiments bar, or keeping your voice down when you’re on the phone, or just smiling at people: all these things make that one moment nicer–so if you do it enough, you’ll have a lot of nice moments. But more than that, being helpful and cheerful spreads out to the people around you. We each have the ability to change the mood of a room for better or worse, and we can infect people with our consideration.
That whole idea that if we put good into the universe it will come back was always a little too magical for me to take seriously, but this is solid: If you do something nice, then at least once person did something nice. And if you influence someone else to do nice, then there are two people out there doing nice things. That makes everything (a little) nicer.
(One note though: when you do your good deeds, make sure you don’t do them as loudly and smugly as possible, while looking around to make sure everyone notices and talking about how you guess you’re just a super nice person. No one will want to be like you then.)