The secret Santa who pays it forward

Lynne McTaggart

Marie, an employee of a software company, had an epiphany one day at her company’s vending machine.  She decided that every time she came for her afternoon Coke, she’d leave money in the machine for the next person, with a note and a card: Your can of Coke has been paid for.  Take this Smile card and pay it forward.
From the moment Marie began her campaign, frantic emails began circulating around the office in an attempt to pinpoint the identity of the company’s secret Santa. A Neighborhood Watch scheme was set up with two or three employees on constant lookout.  At this point, Marie decided that it was time to escalate operations.  She moved to another floor, where she surreptitiously left a daily supply of donuts. For months everyone was talking about it.  It completely changed the conversation. More important, though, it entirely changed the atmosphere of her office.
“When generosity is the basic social capital, you see things from a broader perspective,” says Nipun Mehta, who runs CharityFocus and distributes Smile cards. “You come from a different place of openness. You’re more likely to see multiple views. It deepens trust. The cup of gratitude overflows, and turns into action in so many ways.”
Social contagion
Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard who specializes in networks, recently discovered a pay-it-forward phenomenon in communities.  The participants were randomly assigned to a sequence of different groups in order to play a series of one-shot games with strangers in which people could decide how much to put into a public ‘pool’ of money. 
This enabled Christakis and his partner, James Fowler, to draw up networks of interactions, so that they could explore exactly how the behavior spreads from person to person along the chain.  They discovered a scientific demonstration of what Marie carried out:  giving creates a contagion of giving, a network of “pay-it-forward” altruism. The actions of participants affected the future interactions of other people along the network. 
“If Tom is kind to Harry, Harry will be kind to Susan, Susan will be kind to Jane, and Jane will be kind to Peter,” writes Christakis. “So, Tom's kindness to Harry is seen in Jane's kindness to Peter, even though Jane and Peter had nothing to do with Tom and Harry and never interacted with them.”
Three degrees
All it took was one act of kindness and generosity to spread through multiple periods of play and up to three degrees along the network. “Each additional contribution a person made to the public pot in the first period of play is tripled over the course of the experiment by other people who are directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more as a consequence,” Christakis and Fowler write.
So, for every act of kindness or generosity you do for a friend, he or she pays it forward to their friends and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends.
Christakis has proven that which Marie had instinctively figured out: kindness and generosity create a cascade of cooperative behavior, even in the most hardened of hearts.
All in the small
As Mehta says, don’t think in terms of big donations, but just the smallest things that you can do in the here and now.  May you pay it forward in tiny acts of kindness this holiday season and watch them spread throughout the world.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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44 comments on “The secret Santa who pays it forward”

  1. I completely agree with the basic question above, and the basic intent behind this question. There could have been many other choices, Lynn, for your example of "paying it forward" that would have been less confusing. There are, for instance, many things this country, USA, gives away to other countries, for free, that ultimately are very damaging to the recipients, feigning good will. One might say the intent here is what is so different, but it does show how we need to really get clear on the CONTENT of what we give and the INTENT of what we give, and whether the intent overrides the negative content....such as the Coke and the donuts. And another thing----the ASCRIBED MEANING of the content, by the receivers likely plays into this as well.

  2. I also agree with the above for the most part, and kindness doesn't have to be just giving something it could be the kind words to a stranger, a smile, just simply being nice is an act of kindness in itself.

  3. I don't think it's complicated. Be kind. Be generous whenever you see an opportunity. It's infectious, that's all we need to know.

  4. Wendy and Chris,
    to me both of you seem to be impressed by suffering, thinking about suffering, and thus contributing to the awareness of suffering, which tends to make it grow. What you fight and what you focus on will grow.
    Marie on the other hand was focusing on kindness and that is what her action inspired in others. It is much more likely that her actions will bring about a better world without suffering than of those who focus on things that are wrong.

  5. This is the way I see it. Generosity is generosity; period. The gratitude felt and expressed as the result of that generosity changed the thinking of the individuals in Marie's company. We know that when you change your thinking you change your brain structure and chemistry. And with those changes comes the opportunity to see the world and each other differently. As a result social consciousness begins to evolve in a positive way. I don't disagree that the "corporate thinking" at the upper levels of a company like Coca-Cola is seriously flawed but I'd rather think of the workers "on the line" or the janitors or the people who come to work everyday and work in low paying jobs to raise and feed their families. The same applies to donut shops; low paying jobs worked by single moms trying to raise their families and do right by them. And one more thing; when any country, corporation or individual "gives" something to feign good will it's not generosity, it's greed. And greed is greed; period. And nothing good ever comes of that.

  6. Pretty disgusting to forward a bottle of coke. And then there is the intention for Jasun Light(sic)
    who is fighting obesity. Get him the coke and all the other sugary stuff, including all the other refined carbs.

  7. People please!!!! You are diminishing the act of kindness by over analyzing it to death. A kind act done in the present moment is just that, a kind act, period. You are attaching so much unintended baggage to something so simple. Enjoy it for what it is and stop trying to make a cause out of it.

  8. Acts of kindness is always rewarded, always the beauty of not knowing when and where, keep us humble.
    Criticism in the other hand reward the one generating it and stops right there. And no matter what is criticized will expand just because laws of nature say so, whatever we give attention to will prevail.
    So what to do? then? maybe instead of criticizing Coke, promote healthy living.
    It's all in the intention.
    Lynne another great post thank you.
    Merry Christmas

  9. One of the things Marcia and I do is to give away 'Hug Certificates'. We've given them to friends and to people we've met on the street, to people we've seen hugging, and we've left them anonymously in books, on bus seats and at restaurants and coffee shops. We've also received some wonderful stories from people who have given or received Hug Certificates to/from others.
    It's one small way to make the world a better place...
    Whatever occasion(s) you celebrate, we offer our best wishes for a safe and happy Holiday Season to you and those close to you!
    P.S. For more on Hug Certificates (including a way to print your own), see:

  10. The story is heartwarming, but in these days, someone might steal the coin. It is better to give in a more direct way!

  11. Wendy brought up such an important point. and so did Gerard.
    I agree that what you focus on increases - suffering included. However. ignoring conditions that cause suffering isn't right either. If we saw what goes on in factory farms, research labs and a host of other situations, we would be appalled at the suffering of animals. And by the same logic, should we ignore the distress of other people?
    If only we could give the gift of awareness, because too little awareness with too much power is a dangerous combination.

  12. Giving generates a vibration that others will attune to in a way similar to the physics concept of resonance. Be what you wish to see in the world. When you ignore the bad and focus on the good you generate (dare I say it ) Good Vibrations. We all understand this intuitively.
    Have a Merry Christmas Lynne and everyone else in the world.


  14. If one chooses for intention to be their form of action in this world, that is their choice. Whether one feels or chooses to believe that this is "ineffective" or not fast enough for them is their own decision. If you don't agree with Coca Cola, then stop drinking Coca Cola or supporting them in any form. That is your choice, but not your choice to make for another.
    I'm vegetarian myself, but I don't make that choice for my children or the rest of my family. It's theirs to make. If I wish for them to be vegetarian, then all I can do is show them through my life what it means to be vegetarian and the possible benefits of that.
    Sure, we are spiritual beings having a human experience, but what that tells me is that allowing others their free will is the highest form of honor and respect for that, and is the only true action you can take with respect to others' stories.
    There always will be things you can look at and say, "That's bad" or "that's good", which is excellent! So make those determinations for yourself, and adjust your own life in a way that is appropriate for you, and let others see the shining example that you are. If it bothers you that they don't make the same choice you do, then examine why that is.
    In my own spirituality we say, "When you criticize or talk badly about someone or something, then you are criticizing or talking badly about the creator." We are all spiritual beings, everything, created with the spark of creator within each of us. EVERYTHING. Even Coca Cola.
    The physical world around us is movement and light... ever changing... motion and emotion. What Coca Cola does in the world is part of that. We can let that motion and emotion push us off course and create inaction for us, like, for example, not paying it forward because the object of that "payment" is a can of Coke, or we can live in our truth "right now", and do what we feel is right by others.
    In other words, we can let the motion and emotion of the world distract us from living our truth, or we can let it flow by us, standing strong in the storm of the world as beacons of light for others to follow.
    It's not up to you to choose how others do that. Only you can choose how you do that, and how you share your story with the people in your life.
    Just my 2 cents on it anyway.... 🙂

  15. I must agree with Wendy here. Acknowledgement of the brutal and deadly practices enacted by people, corporations and/or governments is not the same as dwelling in negativity. If we do not acknowldge what is not working, not fair, and inhumane (and change our actions accordingly) we are in denial. One of my favorite lines from a Pink Floyd song goes: "don't accept that what's happening is just a case of other's suffering or you'll find that your joining in the turning away".
    While purity of thought is a profoundly important cultivation for each individual, I see no benefit to turning away from that which we don't like. The goal in acknowledging unpleasant things is change. With a heart-felt acknowledgement of suffering, we take a crucial step toward improving a situation (i.e. this situation is not healthy and so I am going to move in a direction that contributes to health for all).
    It takes courage to acknowledge the ugliness and inequity in our world and I really appreciate Wendy for doing so.
    Blessings to all!

  16. I don't think anyone is condemning Wendy or saying she is dwelling in negativity for pointing out that Coca Cola sucks, at all.
    What I see most people saying is that she shouldn't let one beings negative actions affect, or worse yet, negate her own, and others, positive ones.
    If your truth is to acknowledge the brutal and deadly practices enacted by people, corporations and/or governments , then do so, and adjust your own actions accordingly. Don't tell people how to live your truth, show people how you live your truth, and if they choose to follow, they will.
    In other words, if you feel strongly about it, don't buy a Coke for yourself and then simply share the reason you don't with people who are curious. (Putting a soap box by the machine and getting in the face of everyone who buys a Coke is not the same thing.)
    But someone else will choose to buy a Coke for themselves, no matter how much you may disagree with Coca Cola's practices. Paying it forward and buying them a Coke has absolutely nothing to do with Coke, and has everything to do with your giving generously and freely of yourself to someone you do not know.
    Dwelling on the atrocities of Coca Cola only short-circuits that cycle, or prohibits it from even starting.
    In this case, it also serves to take away from the positive intention of Lynne's article to start with, because the fact that it was Coke that Marie went for, is completely irrelevant to the intention of the article.
    Happy holidays! 🙂

  17. Wendy and Kris, You remind me of my fundamentalist christian relatives always trying to make us feel sinful. Well duh, anyone smart enough to read this blog already knows that sodas and donuts are bad food causing negative long term affects which are mostly enabled by bad policy. But must you always grind away the goodness of the story to induce guilt. You will never, never win converts by telling us we are bad. What would you have found to complain about if the Marie in the story had left nutritionally, eco/politically appropriate foods.

  18. The point, as I see it, is not in giving a coke or a box of doughnuts. The point is giving for the sake of giving. Don't want to give coke or doughnuts? Don't. Give or Pass forward whatever it is that someone has given you in the form of kindness, compassion and courtesy. Whatever you give, freely, privately and anonymously, give it without expecting anything in return... not even a thank you.
    This entire exercise is not solely for the benefit of the receiver but for the giver. Giving with a purpose and expectation of return, yes... even political considerations... is not giving at all. It is an act of selfishness and does nothing to encourage, either, your self enlightenment or the awakening in others.
    "Give for Giving
    Forget giving for getting."

  19. One more thing... briefly.
    Please re-read the last paragraph of Lynn's blog:
    All in the small
    "As Mehta says, don’t think in terms of big donations, but just the smallest things that you can do in the here and now. May you pay it forward in tiny acts of kindness this holiday season and watch them spread throughout the world."
    Humbly demonstrate your humanity to others in secret and the World will glow just that much more.

  20. I think Peter Considine above summed it up. What are we looking at here, an example of how an act of kindness becomes a growing, expanding phenomenon or the deeper social issues surrounding what products are deemed to be a gift, or worthy of our support i.e Cola. As Wendy states and others there are massive social issues surronding support of corporate giants that revolve around the dollar return. What I find comforting about the example above it that somebodys intention to do something different and bring about a culture of kindness and giving is surly the startpoint, then as a society we can move on to deeper social issue's that need change. Change is a subtle slow moving process when we are talking about changing society's veiw as it's the collective and not the individual we are influencing and a great catalyst for this social change is local acts of kindness from the individual.

  21. Great conversation here... Yes, it is always wise to consider the larger scope of one's actions.
    Having worked for marketing companies, I have to wonder whether this was a story started by Coke itself to get its name out...! The person telling the story could have just as easily said that Marie came for her afternoon can of soda and left money for another soda. (What if the next person's preference was Sprite, or root beer, anyway?!)
    We each have our understandings of what is best for us, and if we don't think a lot, we assume everyone else has the same tastes and preferences. If Marie likes to have Coke every afternoon, she obviously does not understand the negative health implications of that behavior, but nevertheless wants to pass on a gift of something she likes for herself.
    When I receive a gift from someone who doesn't understand my tastes, is it my responsibility to educate them as to why I don't like my gift, or to accept it graciously, looking past the faux pas to their gracious intention? The answer really depends on my relationship with the person.
    Would that we could all be more gracious and see more opportunities to give in those small ways. While the examples in the story don't fit my style, the spirit in it is a good reminder for me to develop Marie's goodheartedness.

  22. In a way, it seems, each person contributing to Lynne's blogs is paying it forward, in the sense that each is attempting to benefit others. While there is the appearance of disagreement from time to time, each comment provides the basis for bringing more and varied aspects of the issue to Light. With Mindfulness gently running in the background, and without too much heavy-handedness, we run the risk of getting along a little better, in the process of letting others know what we're working on. Mehendra Trivedi admits to drinking Coke. His explanation for doing so is interesting, and so is his other work( which is evidently astounding certain serious scientists). If our intentions can transform water and we and coke are mostly water and we and water and other stuff like factories and board room tables are carefully arranged plus and minus charges with barnloads of empty space in between, then maybe...

  23. Here's a story an imam friend told related recently ...
    One day, Nasrudin was riding on his donkey when he stopped at a fountain to perform the ablutions before prayer. Unfortunately, the donkey kept wandering off. Nasrudin found a stick, jammed the end into the ground, gave it a few hard whacks and tethered the donkey to it. When he left, Nasrudin thought, "I'll leave this here, in case anyone else needs to tether their mount."
    Later, a thirsty man was hurrying to the fountain and tripped over the stick. "Some idiot's left this stick in the ground just where someone could trip over it!" he exclaimed, "I'll pull it out, so it won't happen again."
    Both men's actions assured them a place in Heaven.

  24. James, if we're not supposed to buy sugary drinks for others because some people are obese, does that mean that it's bad to buy a round of drinks because someone in the bar may be an alcoholic?

  25. Holy moley! Just have a little love in your heart and do something nice for someone without expectation of reward or recognition. Thanks, Lynne, for reminding us of how really SIMPLE it can be to propagate and perpetuate good feelings.

  26. I would suggest forwarding this email to those in your inbox likely to receive it in the spirit it was intended. Thus your positive intention will spread across the globe with immediate effect. I believe positive energy communicated in this way has the power to raise conscious awareness. Thus perhaps Marie may choose to campaign for a free fresh water dispenser in the office eliminating the need for sugar and caffeine rich drinks.

  27. Generosity benefits both the giver and the receiver. The giver feels that he/she has done good, the recipient that there is at least one other person -possibly more- who cares about him/her. Of course it is eminently beneficial to mankind. Whether one is a Christian or not, the topic Lynne has chosen for her blog is as usual right on target, this time at Christmas.
    Much as I love her, I think that this time Dickens said it better. Happy Christmas everyone-- Christian or not.

  28. I find it counterproductive to focus on things being bad for us. The scientists keep reversing and changing opinions on all this anyway. Some wise person once said "its just pouring God into God".

  29. Oh My Goodness!
    A little kindness is not likely to escalate the rise or fall of questionable corporations.
    I am sure that the lady who pays for the coke and doughnuts does so in a spirit of kindness, not some sinister desire to promote death and obesity!

  30. really gt idea 🙂 if everyone was so generous & giving, the world wld b so much more beautiful 🙂

  31. Wendy and Larissa have done a good thing here. I would not want to remain ignorant of better ways to "be kind". I would not want to help market products that create ill in the world. Offering coke does not negate anyone's intentions, but I continually seek enlightened education to do better--how else could I create something better in the world if I just follow the status quo. I throw off old ways of acting when I find out better--and I am thankful for having learned such.

  32. Judging another persons good intentions, criticizing and finding them lacking is not kind.
    By saying 'my way is better' is not being kind.

  33. If you were given the keys to the car, so to speak, ie., if you were handed the job of creating a universe, one that you would either live in or stay outside of, what would you have going on in it, who or what would populate it, could they ever leave, etc? Would there be bathroom breaks or an afterlife or trial separations island getaways or deep breaths? Our world is so complex and yet in some ways as similar as finger prints. Would you simplify things by eliminating such things as Coke and ensure that all the parts did what you wanted them to? Or wind things up and see how wierd they acted? Or just create a nice cloud and a few friends who shared your tastes and live happily ever after. Silent Night, Holy Night...who took my aftershave. Ahem,...All is Calm, All is full of Photons...

  34. Dear Everyone,
    I hope you all are having a blissful holiday. As editor of What Doctors Don't Tell You, I spend a good deal of time writing about healthy diet, and I'm certainly not a fan of Coca Cola Inc and any other corporations that make a profit out of foodstuffs that cause ill health. However, I think the real point of my story is about the transformative power of giving. The Secret Santa's act transformed her office. This information was shared in that spirit, and I hope that will be the point taken away from this week's blog.
    Warmest wishes,

  35. The real point of your blog was obvious to me from the beginning, Lynne, and I've been a bit surprised at the nit picking some of the respondents came back with. My second post above was not aimed at you. Since your clarification followed my last post, I thought perhaps I should respond. I have a high regard for you and benefit from your posts. As regards Mr. Trivedi, he seems to have a somewhat lofty opinion of himself and his gifts, rightly or wrongly. I do wish you and yours a great holiday and look forward to what the new year has in store.

  36. Hi and best wishes from Holland. I believe all people have the freedom to chose -and intend!-what they to be, what they want to see as right and just, what they want to do or not - even if the consequences of some choises can indeed be life endangering, or even fatal. But to judge Creation from our perspective - isn't that a bit megalomanic? Saying that things that happen to others are bad is just projection of our own choises and preferances, which are fine of themselves, but our choises and preferances cannot classify what happens to others in terms of right or wrong, just of unjust, in any moral sense. My opinion about the (im-)morality of anybody's death, for example, is merely my opinion - my choise. Mine to make - and life mákes us chose, day after day, minute after minute, second after second. That's so we can be who we are; so we can chóse who we want to be. Passing Coke forward to someone who is dying of thirst just might save their life - and ward off a magnificent death cruelly and unneccessarily. 🙂 Who are we to know or judge what path other souls have chosen? All we can do is chose our own. So let's not judge actions of others; let's just think about them, share them, and decide for ourselves if we would do the same, or do it a bit differently, or do something completely different. As for me, any time I don't know what to do/think, I ask myself: Does God/Creation/The Universe make mistakes?

  37. Warm wishes to all. I hope many return to review the "debate" here.
    So many issues touched on and probably many overlooked, when actually, Lynn said it prefectly in her last post, about the story expressing a principle and the results.
    A couple of 'teachers' came to mind through the story and resulting comments...
    "The Law of Allowing", aptly taught by many, tells us to observe ad allow. Centered in the fact that we cerainly do live in a 'polar' existence, here, and without the 'good' and 'bad' to compare, how would we be able to experience either? So, they MUST both be, and we should observe and learn the best we can, hopefully with good teachers to guide us with principled teaching.
    Then, there is the "level of collective consciousness", as taught by David R. Hawkins, and associated with Lynn's story, as the good goes around, more people will gain in good vibrations, generally speaking, raising the "collective" good vibration of mankind, even if only slightly, it is needed!
    And, Wayne Dyer made a great presentation on "The Power of Intention" (book, audio, video...available at one time on PBS), that covers many issues related to Lynn's intention for this story. He covered the spiritual benefits as well as the basic laymans explanation of how the giver, the receiver AND any observer of a kind hearted act will benefit through the manufacturing of seratonin within their bodies, and simply 'feel good' (raising their vibation level).
    Then, for those not in objection to Bible stories for the sake of showing principles (and I use this for the debaters here), one scripture tells us, paraphrasing it, not to tell one to "go, and keep warm without giving them something to cover themself with". The intention behnd the act in Lynn's story is the "star" on this stage. Certainly, we can learn from that, it forward.
    For the basic purpose of Lynn's story, I love her intent, and, as I am now in this human form....imperfect, forgetful, and often distracted, I thank her for the story and reminder, so I can go out and "pay it forward", too. I hope this comment helps me in this intent.
    One last thought, it occured to me that, as similarly mentioned by Anne (#25), that Coca Cola propogated this story for their own benefit, that there could be a possiility that this story was told in the form it was told in to see what debate would develop in relation to all of the points covered in the deate, for the purpose of "measuring" this community's level of consciousness....or something like that. Just a little food for thought.
    Good will to ALL!!!

  38. Hi all,
    I think Wendy's thoughts are very interesting even though they are off the mark of what was intended from the blog. That's a good thing though. It's good to be able to see the hole's in things, but the more important thing is where the individual's intention was. Good thoughts, good intentions are infectious. Her action by buying a specific product might not be a perfect choice ... perhaps a bag of peanuts instead, but then what about the people who are allergic to peanuts?? We can go on forever with this, but the point is if someone kindly hands you a can of coke to be nice, you wouldn't slap the can to the floor and lecture them of the wrong doings of the coke company. Accept the coke with complete gratitude because that was the intention behind the gift, to make you feel better about your day. Later you can talk to this person about changing their choice of product. We can't live solely on intention, because our action or inaction speak louder. Our intentions I feel are the driving force behind our actions. A wrong action as some may see to buy a Coke product, is not a wrong action when you look at the persons intention behind it trying to spread generosity and kindness around her work place. We are human. We won't always get our actions perfect, but if our intentions are noble and selfless, in the end our actions will become closer and closer to "perfect". We can help each other by informing each other why certain actions have bad outcomes. If we are willing to understand that someone's intentions are on the mark even if they might have steered wrong a little in their action we can learn forgiveness as well. Sometimes I think we can focus on the negative of a situation too much and that's what happened here. The message delivered by Lynn was 100% positive and inspiring to be generous if we are not already, but the fact that someone chose to be generous with a can of coke should not lessen the effect this person had on her entire office. Think of the overall energy she projected out into the Universe and what energy you project out to the Universe by criticizing her noble act because she bought a can of coke instead of sprite. First acknowledge the good, then help others to see how we can make the good, great! I think it's great we are all able to think so deeply about this topic and have a good discussion about it. Lynn, I am a big supporter of what you do and I wish you continued success. Much love to you all and I hope you all have an excellent start to the new year bringing kindness and understanding everywhere you go! Peace!

  39. An act of kindness is just that. Appreciate it for the essence of the intent. Let's stop trying to change or control things that are beyond our control. Everything has that which is wanted and that which is not, so why not choose to look at what is good as you will then attract more of that and as a result you see your world from a different precpective and be in a better place to help those that are asking. You become what you think. Happy New Everyone.

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