One woman’s deceptively simple strategy to spread happiness in the world.

Karen DeBonis quotes Mother Theresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” It is this idea of many ripples that inspires her.

In her 60s, Karen has been doing random acts of kindness for decades. “It has never failed to get me out of my own head and focused on the hearts of others,” she wrote in a Huffpost article. Whenever she feels herself turning too much inward, she grabs a handful of $10 bills and gets out of the house. 

What she does with those bills is not heroic, she insists. “Many people—health care workers, first responders, volunteers in thousands of communities and organizations—give much more of their time, energy and financial resources than me.” But because of a small design change she’s made to her random-acts strategy, her actions create ripples.

The More, the Merrier

Essentially, Karen brings in a middle man. Rather than approach someone directly, she asks a third party to help with her intended act of kindness.

“I choose a retail business,” Karen explains, “find an employee who doesn’t look too busy, and pop the question: ‘Would you help me do an act of kindness?’”

Perhaps the self-proclaimed introvert developed the strategy to avoid being put on the spot or talking directly to the gift recipient. It’s certainly less awkward to engage a third party. But the way that Karen goes about her random acts of kindness is essentially unleashing some serious superhero powers—because the effect is to spread joy not two, but threefold.

“No one has ever refused my offer,” wrote Karen, who approaches employees in all kinds of retail businesses. “It feels too good, not just for the receiver, but for the giver.” 

Here’s how it works: Karen approaches a store employee and asks them if they’ll help her out with an act of kindness. When they agree, she gives them a small but significant amount of money, usually around $10, and tells them to choose a customer, any customer, to receive a discount on their purchases that day. Karen then leaves the store, happily imagining who it might be that will have a good surprise in their day. The employee is happy and excited to make someone’s day a little brighter. And, of course, the gift also makes for a little happiness in a third person’s day.

Acts of Kindness That Aren’t So Random

Besides these random acts of kindness, Karen creates challenges for herself to continue spreading joy, even in sadder moments. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Karen did 26 of these special acts of kindness, one in memory of each of the 20 children and six adults killed. 

For her 60th birthday, Karen threw a party and asked for $10 bills instead of gifts. She pulled from that envelope all year, multiplying the happiness her friends felt in giving the money exponentially—to her, to her “middle men”, and to the recipients of her generosity. 

For her 63rd birthday, she did an act of kindness for each decade of her life, involving employees from her hair salon, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a dollar store, a grocery store, and a farmers’ market.

Karen doesn’t usually get to find out who the recipients of her gifts are. That’s part of the strategy—to involve someone else in the good deed and then exit with grace. But sometimes, employees will tell her how their mutual act of kindness worked out. The way these employees tell Karen all about it, their eyes lighting up, is how she knows what an impact this simple twist to the random-act-of-kindess formula is having.

In the bookstore, for example, it was a child who received Karen’s $10 from the cashier. The boy was $3 short for the book he wanted, and the employee knew it was the perfect time to bestow Karen’s gift. The boy and his grandmother put their change into a collection bucket for a local food pantry, adding yet another layer to the giving.

Karen insists that these acts are small and simple things and that she’s no do-gooder extraordinaire. When she feels that the world is closing in and she’s becoming too isolated, it’s the perfect thing to break her out of her funk and to remind her that this overwhelming concept of “happiness” really boils down to individuals.

Every small act of kindness absolutely makes a difference, and every individual person is capable of spreading a little joy in the world.