ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: paying it forward

by Ashley

Image from Good Life Zen.

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for emotionally evocative commercials. Folgers’ ad about Peter, the older brother returning from Africa and sharing a cup of Joe with his little sister — I’m looking at you. (Sheesh, I even got choked up just uploading the YouTube video!) Publix ditty about families gathering around the Thanksgiving table, holding hands and expressing gratitude — you know what I’m talking about. Those two Liberty Mutual pieces on paying random acts of kindness forward — you know what you do to me. No matter the context of what I might be doing at the time these advertisements air, once they’re rolling across my screen, I get misty-eyed. And don’t even get me started on what happens during well-curated movie previews . . .

In the States, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving next Thursday. This is the day of the year most-often associated with excessive food consumption and awkward family get-togethers. The true intention of the holiday, however, is the expression of gratitude. From a good harvest, to loved ones, to good health and more, Thanksgiving is the time when we pause, reflect on all that has occurred in our lives during the previous year, and find the jewels among the stones, the roses among the thorns.

The last commercials I mentioned, the Liberty Mutual ones, present a topic I’d like to discuss in today’s Small Measures. While we might think only of those with whom we’re directly acquainted on Thanksgiving and the gestures of kindness they’ve shown us, it is also those strangers we rub shoulders with daily who enrich our lives in quiet, yet profound ways. Last year around this time, I discussed expressing our gratitude backward, or returning a kind deed done to us with a direct acknowledgment. This year, I’d like to propose also paying our thankfulness forward, especially to those we might not know.

I’ve mentioned here before that, in my estimation, a well-designed life (this is a design blog, after all!), considers the whole person, from external home and internal health to emotional and psychological states. For me, paying kindness forward fosters the sort of balanced, nourished and enriched life I want to cultivate. Two famous axioms really drive the “pay it forward” ethos home: Gandhi’s “Be the change we wish to see in the world” (if you want to shed some tears yourself, check out this colossally goodwill-inspiring piece) and the so-called Golden Rule, urging us to “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

While today’s Small Measures doesn’t show you how to tea-stain a lampshade, make herbal sun tea, keep chickens or discuss an ancient aesthetic, it does offer a few suggestions, from me to you, on ways to enrich the lives of the otherwise anonymous sentient beings with whom we share this planet. They are small, simple, easy gestures, none requiring a large expenditure of time or money. Here goes:

CLICK HERE for Ashley’s list of 15 “Paying It Forward” ideas after the jump!

1. Buy the coffee for the person in line behind you at the drive-thru.

2. Pay the fare for the car behind you at the toll booth.

3. Pay the entrance fee for the car behind you at a beach or park.

4. Swipe your Metrocard for the person behind you at the turnstile.

5. Buy the movie ticket for the person behind you in line (at a matinee!).

6. Offer your seat on the subway or bus to a senior, pregnant woman or person with special needs.

7. Help a mother (or father) with an infant or toddler put groceries in her (or his) car.

8. Leave gathered wildflowers on the windshield of your neighbor’s car.

9. Scrape the ice off the windows of other cars on your street.

10. Help someone with a flat tire or impaired vehicle (even if only to offer use of your cell phone, should they lack one).

11. Write a letter of praise to the manager of a store detailing the outstanding service you received from one of their employees.

12. Compliment someone’s smile, eyes, hair, outfit, shoes, etc. (This is one of my MOST favorite things to do!)

13. Allow someone with fewer items to get ahead of you in the check-out line.

14. Let the driver with their turn signal on pull out in front of you.

15. Donate blood.

Sarah Ryhanen of Saipua and D*S fame has been running a truly inspirational free floral bouquet giveaway over the past few weeks for Manhattan or Brooklyn residents. Perhaps businesses in financially solvent positions could host similar giveaways. Want some more ideas? Here are 70.

In the weeks leading up to the frenzied, excessive, fabulous, festive holiday season, taking a minute to give freely of yourself, even when no one asks it of you, is a small measure with enormous repercussions. What goes around truly comes around.

What about you? Got any tales of random kindness to tell or ideas to share? I’d love to hear! — Ashley

Suggested For You


  • What a nice post. I absolutely adore those Liberty Mutual ads! I can never remember what they’re advertising, but the idea of randomly paying it forward is so touching (not like the movie, which was… less so).

  • I like these very much. I very much believe that it is the giving and receiving of these small gestures of kindness that make us happy, not the big monumental stuff.

  • I got misty eyed just reading this… what a great post. Thanks for the gentle reminder, I will remember to adopt this attitude throughout the frenzy of the holiday season, when I am usually frazzled and harried (which doesn’t always make me as nice as I’d like to be)! Hopefully it will bring myself and others a little peace and some smiles :)

  • Thank you for the sweet reminder! It’d be nice if the we all treated each other as members of a community, instead of looking at people like strangers.

  • bring old clothes and items to your local battered woman’s shelter,rather than adding them to the heap at your local thrift store.I do this at Chez Doris in montreal,and they always need more clothes!

  • Thanks for making me feel better about the fact that I uncontrollably tear up every time I have seen each one of those videos!

    This post makes me happy to be someone who was raised to help people every day – it is in fact the little things that count. I get a little disheartened by what I see in New York every day, and the video ‘Be the change we wish to see in this world’ really captures my sentiments exactly. The more people that see you run down the street to give someone the money that fell out of their pocket, or give up your seat on the subway, or give someone in need some of your groceries, the better!

  • this is so wonderful.

    and man, that folger’s commercial gets me every time. the sweetness of it, combined with the nostalgia of seeing it when i was a kid. so good.

  • This is a really nice idea. When I get back from work on the day of the week the bins get put out, every time one of my neighbours has put my bins back in my driveway from the road. I don’t even know which neighbour it is to say thank you but it just makes the street feel that little bit more friendlier and is so appreciated when you just want to rush inside from the cold.

  • There has been a lot of snow here this week and since I get home from work a few hours (and still in day light) before my neighbors, I’ve been shoveling their walk. It is something that I really appreciate when my neighbors do for me.

    Last week my sister was shopping and asked the clerk how her day way going, the clerk replied that they had been short staffed and she was the only person working and was having a long day without a lunch break, so my sister went out and bought some cookies to bring back to the store for her. I thought that was really nice!

  • my husband always makes fun of me when i cry at peter returning from africa folgers commercial but now i know im in good company! these are things that i always think abut but the really hard thing can be putting them in to practice!

  • I like to pay parking meters when I see that someone is out of time or getting close to it. I doubt the people ever know, but who cares… it makes me feel good knowing that the meter maid has one less victim.

  • Great post… Maybe it will inspire someone to let the person who has MORE items than you ahead in line at the grocery store.

    Someone . . . like me.


  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen or other community place that could use the extra help this time of the year :)

  • Ah one other one..besides donating blood/plasma my roommates are also volunteering for our area literacy program to help in the community.

  • great post!
    a friend of mine who is a breast cancer survivor suggested that rather than recycling your magazines, to take them to a nearby mammogram or oncology clinic. she had just been waiting for the results of her yearly mamm (all clear!) and lamented that the only magazine in the waiting room to distract her nervous self was golf digest.

  • One of our Thanksgiving traditions is to get together with friends and make compassion kits for the homeless: a bag filled with granola bars, clothing, toiletries etc. We keep them in our cars and hand them out to those in need. And they are always much appreciated.

    Love your blog :)

  • Beautiful post, Ashley! Thanks for keeping it real. Those quotes are my all time top two favorites, and my greatest wish for my children is that they can live by those words…

    Looking for another way to Pay it Forward? Become a bone marrow donor! (Check out Be the Match.org for details–its easy and free to join and not as invasive to donate as you might think) Two days ago I received an email confirming that I am now part of the national bone marrow registry…I hope I’m a match at some point in my lifetime!

  • Lovely post! Even some of the comments are making me tear up. =)

    Just a note about stopping to help a stranded motorist – a good samaritan was struck by another vehicle and killed on a local freeway recently when they stopped to help someone. Please please please be VERY CAREFUL when pulling over to help someone: make sure the scene is safe from continuing traffic, and get back in your car as soon as possible because it will help protect you if another car hits.

  • What a inspiring post! I love the idea of putting together bags for the homeless and keeping them in the car. I would just like to add to Leah’s comment about joining the registry at BetheMatch. If you become a stem cell donor, you can literally save another’s life! Also, please consider donating blood AND platelets! My husband has been kept alive for the past 2 years because of the generosity of many donors, and there is nothing scarier than hearing that there are no platelets available (and that HAS happened.) Happy Thanksgiving all!

  • What a great post. For me, you guys over at DS* are a gift that keeps giving. Everyday I feel inspired, and connected to a really great community…..I recently heard the illustrator Maira Kalman speak, and when she was talking about what good ol’ Ben Franklin used to do. Everyday he would ask himself what good can I do today? and at the end of day he would reflect on it. Well, this works for me, it makes me conscience to just step out myself, if just for a moment…

  • Pay for a meal for a military person. My co-workers and I take turns doing this when we go out to lunch. We pay at the register so they never know. Picking up their tab is a simple way to say thanks.

  • What a great list; some I do (and it makes *me* so happy to!) already, and now I have some new ideas.

    I have made it a point to send a letter to the boss/manager of some probably unsung workers who have been esp. polite, friendly, or helpful – eg. the receptionist at the pool service co. , the guy that came out a did such a good job fixing my lawn sprinklers, and the delivery guy who helped me carry 100lbs. of dog food all the way inside.

  • Thank you to Ashley for such a wonderful post. You should consider this post on small measures a big measure – because if most of us readers do “Thank it forward” you have made a big difference. :)

  • This is such a good message. I had my elementary students watch the CBS news clip about Bren Bataclan, an artist who sent messages of hope along with his art. Students have started to make images at our school and put them around at different times of the day for other students, we have added messages of encouragement to do their best in our school community. It is fun to see my students understanding the importance of pay it forward at a young age!

  • paying it forward often just involves being kind to others – isn’t it amazing we have to remind folks to do the above? but beautiful reminders. i loved the movie ‘pay it forward’ – very underrated film! i like the one about complimenting a stranger too – for some reason people think they can’t talk to strangers and the more we reach out to others, the better our world is (and safer, as well)…

  • What a wonderful post. Thank you. I have been saddened to notice that over the last ten or fifteen years, commercials often feature mean-spirited or outright cruel ‘jokes’ to sell their product. Somehow, movies and tv shows often feature mean or sarcastic plots and themes, and it really hurts us as a society to marinate in this heartless fare. I remember to this day a public service commercial from many years ago. A department store santa claus goes home late on Christmas eve to a lonely, bare apartment. He sits at an empty table, shoulders slumped. Then there’s a knock at the door. It is the little boy from the apartment downstairs, asking, “Mr. Smith? My Mama was wondering, if you aren’t too busy, maybe you want to come downstairs and have Christmas Eve with us?” Okay, now i’m tearing up again.

  • Lovely post. Here in India, people don’t often address strangers in the ways you and so many of the comments describe. I do it anyway, and the results are always so enchanting: surprise, confusion, and then pure, unmixed delight. Particularly true with the many, many people here who are invisible and overlooked by virtue of the work they do – the men who open the doors at the bank or the fancy shops, the women sweeping the streets, the traffic cops, the young boys who bag the groceries. A word, a compliment, a moment’s pause to recognize their contribution, their humanity . . . it is humbling and uplifting to be a part of that great circle of life.

  • I work at a Starbucks with a drive thru – and the most awesome part of my day is telling a customer that the person in front of them paid for their coffee. It is so neat to see how random acts of kindness make people’s days brighter.

  • This is an exceptional post. I have to say, though, that in Utah and maybe other states number 14 is illegal and I know people who have gotten tickets for it. :(

  • I like to keep a piece of fresh fruit, or at least a granola bar, in my purse or car to give to people asking for assistance. This post is wonderful and fills me with a giving spirit again!

  • Great list – but I really don’t think that offering your seat to a disabled or elderly person, or pregnant woman, should be in the same category as giving people flowers or paying for their coffee randomly – it’s a basic rule of using public transportation that should just be observed by everyone. Yet, as a pregnant woman who rides the bus myself, I know this is often not the case, so maybe it’s good to remind people.

  • Something I do that doesn’t cost anything:
    Whenever I get one of those friends and family discount deals you can print out multiples of, I print one for my self and then an extra one that I give to whoever is in line behind me at the store. They end up getting an unexpected 30 or 40% off and it always makes their day. :)

  • These tips are great, but I think No.8 might just piss your neighbours off. Who wants to pick dead flowers off their windscreen at 7.30 in the morning?

  • I know that I am much older than many of you, having grown up in the 50s and 60s (does that make me mid century modern??), but, honestly, the vast majority of these suggestions are simply good manners and the actions of civil people in polite society. I find it sad that so many young people find these actions touching or sweet or special. On the other hand, if so many people find such kindnesses rewarding, perhaps we will all lead happier, more fulfilled lives as part of a caring community.

    • kathryn

      i understand your point and agree that i wish these sorts of behaviours were more common in today’s society. but sadly, they are not. i’m happy that ashley rounded them up as a friendly reminder that it’s never too late to learn to be a bit kinder to each other.


  • this is just beautiful Ashley! i ADORE your writings and i really believe you are enlightened . the way you see (and shows us) small things in their beautiful grandeur renders clear how big you are. from worries about the planet to issues about human relationships, you are a must read to the world. i wish you a happy thanksgiving (it doesn’t mean much to me ’cause i’m brazilian, but it means to wish you happiness!) to you, your family and to Grace and congratulations to you both to have met and work together. which is no surprise as you both seem to have the same elevated spirit towards goodness, God (aren’t two the same?) and people. Love you both without knowing you! p.s.: sorry for the bad english!

  • by the way, one things i really like doing is visiting (not too many times, unfortunately, but every three months) a nursing home (i guess that’s how you call it), a home where old people are left by the families when they’re no longer wanted. none of them are my relatives, but they are so pleased to see and talk to people! they feel lonely and forgotten, which indeed, they are. visiting from strangers who care is almost as special as visiting from family (who might never come). take flowers to them! the happiness they show pays off immediately!

  • When I went to buy toilet paper at Target last week, someone had left a $1 off coupon on top of the (already on sale) Charmin. Such a nice gesture. Making toilet paper buying a pleasure is a real feat!

  • I’d like to add something to my growing list of things I’m thankful for—blogs like this, which attract a wonderful community of creative and compassionate posters. If you want to give yourself a treat, just go click on “Alyssa Has Pink Antlers” a few posts up, and take a look at the staggeringly appealing pecan pie photos.

  • What a great post! I love making other people’s days a little more cheerful. My mom and I go Black Friday shopping every year, and we always bring a dozen donuts to give to the people who have been standing in line all night – they are always so grateful. I also loved the helpful comments with extra suggestions!

  • Loved this post like many others. Thought I’d share a fun story. My wife and I headed to our favorite neighborhood bar in Minneapolis for dinner (a much needed date night). It was pretty packed that night and sitting next to us was a table of Nurses who had spent most of the day picketing during a nursing strike. (the matching T-Shirts gave that away) We decided to pick-up their dinner and bar tab in support of the strike. We told our server to keep it a secret. It was so fun to secretly watch them look around the room and wonder who picked up the tab. As we finished eating, I went to the bar to pay the tab and the bar owner was so moved by what we did, she picked up both of our tabs! It was like instant Karma. It made our whole night, and reminded us to be grateful good humans everyday. Cheers!

  • Include the persons name when saying “thank you”. It makes it a bit more personal and makes them stop to smile. Your waitstaff, bank teller, grocery clerk…no matter where you are if someone does something for you and has a name tag on (or ask the waitstaff their name if you didn’t catch it when they first came to the table) you can do this simple thing. Doesn’t sound like much but do it once and watch the reaction you get.

  • People w/whom I blog locally on a daily paper, picked up on my need for food for myself, medicine, and petfood, after 2 months of joblessness and NO income. An animal rescue lady brought me 6 cases of my animals’ favorite food (32 cans per case) and a kind gentleman brought me a $50 gift card to the grocery store. People can be so unexpectedly kind, even to strangers, like I was to them (in person).

  • This is one from my blogging friends. When cutting coupons and saving big on your grocery bill (and they do) they suggest leaving coupons you don’t use, perhaps for baby diapers and other such items, on the shelves for others who could use them. Help them out a bit as well.

Leave a Reply

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, that comment on people's physical appearance, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.