Does Doing Good Really Do Any Good? by Michele Weber Hurwitz

We hear so much these days about paying it forward and doing random acts of kindness. I often see photos and posts about these types of efforts on Facebook and Twitter. They’re wonderful, and fill my heart with joy, that there is so much good in the world. A little boy who found a twenty dollar bill and wrapped it up with a note and gave it to a soldier. A man in a restaurant who paid the bill for a mom and daughter at a nearby table when he overheard their sad news. A family who hid dollar bills all over a dollar store for people to find, and spend.

At the same time, there are still a great many problems in our world, and I admit, sometimes the magnitude of them just completely overwhelms me. From big stuff — hate crimes, violence, abuse, terrorism — to smaller, every day things — a reckless driver or a rude customer, people who are offensive, or mean, or selfish.

Somehow that doesn’t seem right. With all this goodness going on, shouldn’t that blot out the bad stuff? And the bad guys? There are times I wonder if it’s working. Are acts of kindness making a difference? Is our world better off? In essence…does doing good really do any good?

A few years ago, I was steeped in sadness after losing my mom and watching helplessly as my dad declined from dementia. There were a few normal yet troublesome issues going on with my kids. And friends seemed detached; I worried about how technology was altering personal connections. It was right about the time of the Newtown tragedy, too. Life was weighing heavily.

Then, I read about a class for incoming freshmen at the University of Iowa (my husband is a proud Hawkeye alum). Its subject? Happiness. How to find it and how to hold on to it. As part of the curriculum, the professor had students write down each day three positive events or experiences  — no matter how big or small. Most were decidedly small, such as a sunny day or good food in the residence hall cafeteria. And over time, as the students continued to recognize the small good things in their days, their overall perspectives on life improved.

That sounded like a great idea, and I started doing it too. I tried not to focus so much on the heavy stuff that was weighing on me, but instead, every night I wrote down at least three things that went right that day. Mine were mostly small occurrences too, such as “Sam (my son) played me a song on his guitar,” or “My car repair was covered by the warranty,” or “Received the sweetest email from a reader,” and “How cool is it that birds fly in a V.”

And after a while, some of the heavy stuff loosened up a little. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all.

SUMMER final cover image (2)It was these thoughts — and an amusing item in my local paper’s police blotter — that inspired me to write The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, a novel for ages 10-14, released today from Wendy Lamb Books.

It’s the story of Nina Ross. who is feeling kind of lost the summer before high school. Her grandma died a year earlier, her super-lawyer parents work all the time, and her brother — about to leave for college — has grown distant. She’s feeling the sting of growing apart from her best friend, too, and her once close-knit cul-de-sac neighborhood has changed. Partly inspired by her eighth-grade history teacher’s parting advice, Nina brainstorms a plan to do 65 anonymous good things for her neighbors and family — one each day of her summer vacation — to find out if small good deeds can make a difference. But people react in ways she didn’t envision — including a suspicious neighbor who believes the secret goings-on are anything but good — and things get a little chaotic and messed-up. Nina, my fictional kindred spirit, also struggles with the question: does doing good really do any good?

Now for the police blotter. This really did happen. I read a little item about a woman who called the police when a girl she didn’t recognize was delivering cookies around her neighborhood. The woman became wary and panicked; something else besides chocolate chips could have been in those cookies, you know.

No charges were pressed.

So while I wanted to write an uplifting, hopeful novel to answer my question, I also wanted to incorporate some of the quirkiness of this strange world we live in today. How do people actually react when random good comes their way? I can tell you this: it’s not always as we would expect.

I also wanted the main character of this story to be an ordinary teen, not an overachieving kid who spearheads enormous charitable efforts. It’s incredibly daunting for young people to take on insurmountable big problems while they’re juggling everything else in their pressured lives and trying to figure out the future. But smaller stuff? Doable. And, powerful.

So today, I leave you with two challenges. The first: take one minute out of your day to do one small, ordinary anonymous good thing. The second: don’t tell anyone. Don’t Tweet or post it on Facebook. Let it be your little secret. Let it fill your heart. You will know. And that’s what matters in the end.

Does doing good really do any good? You’ll have to read TSISTW to find out. But I will always hope the answer is a loud, resounding YES!

Michele-author-pic3Michele Weber Hurwitz is also the author of Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). She lives in a suburb of Chicago and loves to walk and eat chocolate (not at the same time). Find her and on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz.