These stories will inspire you to pay it forward.
In April, New York Times best-selling author Celeste Ng recently shared her own experience helping a stranger in need.
Initially passing an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk, she chose to follow her instinct, returning to check on her. After learning that the woman had walked further from home than her body had energy for, Ng took the time to drive her back home.
In July, Therra Cathryn shared her story about a stranger who paid for all her groceries, which including food for her six rescue animals, herself, and her disabled brother. The bill totaled $350. “[I’m] just a guy,” the stranger said before offering to help her goods to the car. Turns out the stranger was Ludacris — yep, the famous rapper and philanthropist, Ludacris, who has a track record of buying groceries for strangers.
What Ludacris didn’t know was that Therra was still reeling from multiple losses. She’d lost her husband to brain cancer, and her mother and home to Hurricane Katrina. This small gesture meant everything to her.
This heartwarming story rests in good company — such as this account about a group of strangers who came to a mother’s aid in a crowded airport, this story of a man who tipped big and inadvertently paid off a car loan, or these accounts of women providing Plan B for those who can’t afford it themselves.
Whether it’s emotional, mental, or physical support, just being there can be enough to make a difference — and remind everyone that they’re just a little bit less alone.
I was riding the train home from campus one day during rush hour. It was more crowded than usual and because all the seats were taken, I was standing in the middle of the train car, crammed between people.
I started feeling really warm, almost like my skin was prickling. Then I started to get dizzy.
By the time I realized I was having a panic attack, little dots had already started dancing before my eyes. I knew that I was going to faint, and started pushing through the crowd to reach the door.
Just as I stepped off the train, my entire vision went dark. I couldn’t see anything. All of a sudden, a girl my age grabbed my arm and lead me to a bench.
She had been on the same train car as me and had noticed that something was wrong. She helped me sit down and talked me through deep breaths. She was a complete stranger, but she stayed with me until I felt better and could stand up again.
I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t helped me.
— Sarah, Illinois
A few years ago I was running myself a little ragged and unfortunately got sick on the subway. I was alone, in my early 20s, and the subway was between two stops — not an ideal situation in any way.
Someone offered me their seat and when we finally got to the next stop, I got off the train and just sort of sat down and leaned against the wall, trying to regain my composure and feel better.
A woman got off with me, told me she wouldn’t bother me, but also let me know that she was standing nearby if I needed anything.
After a while of staying with me, I started to get up when she looked at me directly and said, “Slow down.”
I think about this all the time — because it was clear the way she said it that she meant it on so many levels.
Sometimes when I’m overbooked or running around the city feeling stressed, I think about that and see that woman’s face and think about how sincere her concern and care was for me, a total stranger.
— Robin, New York
I’ve struggled with anorexia for most of my life. I even spent some time in a rehabilitation center. When I was released, I started putting more effort into grocery shopping.
Having consistent, pre-planned meals was the only way for me to fight the urge for starvation.
One day, I slept over at my best friend’s house. When I woke up the next morning, I started to panic, realizing that I didn’t have access to my own kitchen (which likely meant not eating at all that morning).
She woke up shortly after me and told me that she had bought the ingredients needed for my usual breakfast, and asked if she could go ahead and make it for us.
I was stunned — not only that she had paid attention to such a small detail in my routine, but that she had made the effort to act on it in order to make me feel more comfortable in her home.
— Tinashe, New York
When I was working at a grocery store, I was navigating a panic disorder that just destroyed my body. I had to call out of work often because I would be too dizzy to drive, or too nauseous to leave the bathroom floor.
When I had only one day left of calling out, the human resources manager went through my line after clocking out and heard about my distress. She clocked back in to help me fill out a leave of absence which ultimately saved my job.
I was able to get the help I needed and pay for it too, because my income was secured. That small gesture meant everything to me.
— Dana, Colorado
When I was 17, I was playing a game of tackle football with a friend and a group of boys from my church. I didn’t know everyone there, and there was one boy in particular that kept becoming angry whenever we scored a touchdown against them.
After scoring another touchdown, he suddenly ran full speed at me, while my back was turned. He was probably twice my size.
I immediately fell to the ground and momentarily blacked out.
Even though plenty of people had seen what happened, my friend was the only one who came to check on me. He helped me stand up and walked me to the nearest hospital.
I was able to get a prescription on the spot. The doctor told me that my back could have been broken from the force.
To this day, I don’t know what would have happened if my friend hadn’t helped me get to the hospital so quickly.
— Kameron, California
When my daughter was in the fourth grade, I was diagnosed with depression. I started taking antidepressants and kept taking them even though they made me feel worse.
I assumed they were just regular side effects.
Over time, the medication numbed me. I didn’t feel like myself anymore.
My daughter, at 8 years old, came to me one day and said, “Mom. You have to stop this. I don’t want to lose you.”
I stopped taking the medication and slowly started feeling better. Years later, I found out that I had been wrongly diagnosed, and should have never been taking the medication in the first place.
— Chabha, Florida
I essentially raised my little brother. I taught him how to swim, how to ride a bike, and how to make some mean pancakes.
When I was a teenager, my depression started taking over my life. There were times I was sure I wouldn’t make it past 18, so I stopped caring about school.
I stopped trying in most aspects of my life.
There was a day when I was 17 that I had planned to end it. I was home alone. Luckily for me, my brother’s basketball game was cancelled, and he came home early.
He came home with flowers and a card that read, “Because you do so much for me.”
I started crying and he didn’t understand why. To this day he still has no idea why I cried like that.
He doesn’t know that he taught me that love was all you needed to save a life.
— Alexandra, Illinois
But what is it that stops us from reaching out to help?
Maybe it’s the bystander effect, which leads us to assume that others will take on the personal responsibility of assisting another person in need, often resulting in mutual inaction.
Or it’s because we’re easily preoccupied with ourselves — with our own lives and our own daily struggles. But it’s necessary to remember that we’re not alone — and that includes in our pain.
As witnessed, when individuals take it upon themselves to act, extending kindness to both loved ones and strangers alike, the outcome can often be life-changing for the recipient.
Taking the time to check on a friend, a loved one, or a stranger can not only leave an impact on their day, it could change their entire life.
You can never truly know whether people are at the tipping point or need a simple break — so practicing kindness can ensure we don’t accidentally pile onto an already difficult day.
Below, we’ve listed eight small gestures that can help pay it forward:
1. Smile (and say hello)
See a familiar face? The next time you’re going for a walk around your neighborhood, smile, and say hello to those in passing. It’s a minor action that can leave a positive impact on someone’s day.
2. Hold the door open
Though it may seem like common courtesy, holding a door open is a genuine sign of care. Especially when it comes to mothers with strollers, those in wheelchairs, or anyone who’s got their arms full.
This small gesture can make someone’s life a little easier, even for just a moment.
3. Make a habit of donating used items
It can be tempting to toss what you don’t need when you’re in a serious state of purging, but taking the time to donate gently worn clothing, or any other items, can provide a treasure for someone else to discover and cherish.
Set aside a basket or bag that you can fill over time.
4. Always carry cash
Whether it’s assisting a homeless person or someone who’s forgotten their wallet and are in a panic, carrying any sum of cash or change can be a direct way of helping a stranger in need.
5. Keep a tampon on you at all times
Whether you personally use them or not, keeping a tampon on you can save a woman from encountering an embarrassing (and avoidable) incident.
6. Be aware of your surroundings
The best way to combat the bystander effect is by being self-aware and paying attention.
Take note of your surroundings and the people in it, and don’t hesitate to approach someone who may be in distress.
7. Pay it forward
The next time you’re in line for coffee, offer to pay for the person in line behind you. Not only will the gesture brighten their day and mood, they’ll then be more likely to pass that kindness along to someone else.
8. Ask how you can help
While this may seem obvious, asking — rather than guessing — what someone needs, is the most guaranteed way to lend a hand. Chances are the person will likely say no, but as seen in Celeste Ng’s post, not asking isn’t a chance you want to take.
“Pay it forward,” Therra ended in her now-viral post. “We can, every one of us, do SOMEthing for others. You never know a stranger’s full story when you reach out a hand and yank them into a better place.”
Adeline is an Algerian Muslim freelance writer based in the Bay Area. In addition to writing for Healthline, she’s written for publications such as Medium, Teen Vogue, and Yahoo Lifestyle. She’s passionate about skin care and exploring the intersections between culture and wellness. After sweating through a hot yoga session, you can find her in a face mask with a glass of natural wine in hand on any given evening.