Can NYC become a nicer place?
Some young, idealistic New Yorkers -- collectively engaged in trying to inspire a kindness revolution -- are working to make it so. They're giving away money and treats, paying for other people's coffee and groceries, extending compliments to strangers, picking up trash, shoveling cars out of snow drifts, thanking bus drivers and sanitation workers and just smiling as they walk down the street instead of staring at their phones.
But sweetening up a famously busy and cynical city in group efforts can be a tough hoe.
Take the "NYC's RAK" (Random Act of Kindness) MeetUp on Valentine's Day, when more than 40 people assembled to give out 750 flowers and oodles of candy to strangers in Washington Square Park.
"I wanted to give out fruit -- something healthy -- but we wanted to make sure everything was sealed," so suspicious New Yorkers didn't fear being poisoned, explained co-organizer Patrick Fromuth, 25, a Prospect Park innovation designer. Even though the Jolly Rogers and Starbursts they distributed were individually wrapped, "a lot of people were really skeptical" that anyone in NYC would give away something for nothing, Fromuth recalled.
The group is also planning elevator parties and leaving sticky notes throughout the city with encouraging messages to help elevate moods.
"The Doers Network," spearheaded by Jesse Speer, 23, a visual effects artist from Williamsburg, posted $5 bills on midtown streets with invitations to join the positivity posse. Passersby regarded the money suspiciously -- until a child swept in, pocketing all the cash at once.
That taught the Network to post money out of the reach of kids and to give away bills individually by asking people to answer a simple question ("what color is the sky?") so people would feel they "earned" it, Speer explained. Other kindness "stunts" include the offer of "free favors" to strangers, paying in advance for people's frozen treats and sailing "paper share planes" with a few bucks attached into the orbit of strangers.
At Stuyvesant High School, juniors Mikayala Ramnanan, 16, and Rosemarie Gamarra-Munoz, 17, co-lead "StuyRAK," a Random Acts of Kindness group of 25 students who hold bake sales to fund an Ethiopian girl's school costs, help Philippine typhoon victims and try to make the hyper-competitive school of more than 3,200 students a little friendlier.
The club has had trouble getting traction because it faces competition from other, more established service-oriented groups such as Key Club and Red Cross, said Gamarra-Munoz -- but the members it has are loyal, she stressed.
"People create websites every day," and form groups dedicated to random compassion, said Stephen G. Post, a kindness expert who wrote "Why Good Things Happen to Good People," and who works as the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.
The Random Act of Kindness movement is a reaction against "extreme pessimism," empty values, rampant greed and the "horrible sense the culture is going down a negative vortex," Post explained. Many people become kindness evangelicals after stumbling on research showing that habitually generous, giving people who practice kindness are happier, experience less depression, suffer less heart disease and tend to live longer than grouches.
Young people often initiate such groups because "you want some kindness yourself," said Ramnanan. There is comfort and community in numbers -- and teens in particular thrive on peer support, she added.
Still, New York City faces its own particular set of frustrations in building and sustaining such social movements. "People in New York are perfectly kind. They're just incredibly busy. And the financial pressures are out of control! There's not a lot of community building that goes on when people are under such economic stress," Post said.
Everyday kindness efforts are laudable, but the ultimate success of an organization depends on its actions not being "random" at all, but highly organized and responsive to actual needs, Post said.
Many people funnel their compassion compulsions into volunteer efforts, but a lot of New Yorkers say they don't need to be in groups to do good things: You can act on your own to hold open the door for the guy running for the elevator, help someone with a package, listen without judgement to a stranger's frustration and be aware of all the bubbling human need in your immediate environment, they said. It feels good, and kindness is indeed catching.
Whitney Winfield, 24, of Astoria, rhapsodized that her boyfriend doesn't need to join a kindness group because Jacob Porter, 22, is a already a one-man mitzvah machine, buying groceries for strangers and helping women with strollers up the stairs of the subway.
"She makes me kind! She's inspiring!" countered Porter, a theater producer from the Financial District.
This Christmas, the two picked out letters from three kids at the Post Office's Operation Santa Claus and bought at least $150 worth of gifts.
That felt great, said Porter, who said that while he liked the idea of kindness groups, he didn't need to join one to do right by others.
"I'm a very independent person, but we're in a period right now where we need less talking about all the issues, and just do good things for people," he explained, adding, "We all need to stop kvetching and just do something!"