In a world that seems to be increasingly negative and divisive, it’s easy to believe the myth that one person cannot make a difference. If we harbor this view, we can only expect the world to become worse, not better. Yet, the idea of changing this big world we live in all by yourself can feel overwhelming and all too much for one, single person.
The good thing is that most lasting change we see didn’t happen all at once. Instead, it was started by individuals doing small things each day to make their world a better place, and over time, it resulted in the big changes we remember. The Forest Man of India is a perfect example of this.
In 1979, Payeng “Molai” Payeng was 16 years old and living on Majuli Island. Nestled along the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India, Majuli is the largest river island in the world, and home to over 150,000 people. Since 1917, however, Majuli had lost over half of its land mass to erosion because of deforestation.
One day Payeng watched a large number of snakes die on Majuli after they washed up from flooding, with no foliage to protect them from the excessive Indian heat. Payeng felt compelled to plant 20 bamboo seedlings to help provide future creatures with more protection. Then, along with the social forestry division, he helped plant 200 hectares with trees. The project was planned for five years, but disbanded after three. After all the other laborers had left, Payeng had no place to go, so he took it upon himself to finish the work. He looked after the plants, and planted one tree a day.
Today, the area is named the Molai forest after Payeng. It’s almost 1.5 times larger than Central Park and home to Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceros, deer, rabbits, monkeys and several varieties of birds, including a large number of vultures that have come to live there because of Payeng’s forest. A herd of around 100 elephants regularly visit every year as well. They generally stay for around six months and have given birth to 10 calves in the forest in recent years.
Every day, for almost 30 years, Payeng has looked after this forest, planting one tree at a time, caring for others and alerting authorities to poachers. He did this off everyone’s radar, completely on his own, without support from the government or subsidizes. His obsessive habit was only brought to public light when he caught a local photojournalist documenting vultures on the island, and accused him of being a poacher. The photojournalist shared Payeng’s story with the world and now he’s officially known as the “Forest Man of India.”
Payeng is a modern-day Johnny Appleseed who transformed this eroding desert island back into a wondrous oasis. He’s a living example of how small, seemingly innocuous actions can build upon themselves over time and change the world before our eyes.
Countless researchers have shown that each time we make a choice to be kind rather than cold, the neural pathways that lean towards positivity are strengthened and reinforced, at the detriment of pathways that are more negative. When we are on the receiving end of this kindness, we gain the same benefits to our neural pathways. We can tell this is happening because of that warm fuzzy feeling we get for being the giver or receiver of a good deed.
Scientists call this feeling “elevation,” and studies show that people experience elevation even when they simply witness a virtuous act, especially one that helps others. Over time, these neural pathways of positivity can become so strong that they change how we see the world, as our attention and experience shift from what feels wrong or broken to seeing what’s going right.
Similar to the “miracle of compound interest,” consistent random acts of kindness do make a tremendously large impact on the world over time. These can be small acts that you do for yourself, such as words of affirmation, or ones you give others, such as always offering to pick up coffee for coworkers when you go get your own. You may not see the effects of your actions right away, but rest assured each moment of goodwill is making minute shifts, both in your subconscious and in those of others.
This week, consider starting a new habit for the people in your life, or around the world, that results in one random act of kindness a day. Smile at stranger you meet, pay for someone’s food in the line behind you, offer to do a favor before you’re asked, show gratitude for the efforts of others. The act can be anything, as long as it’s something intended for positive effect that’s outside of our normal behavior. Each act of goodwill will feed on itself for you and the people you interact with. Collectively, you can and will change the world.
“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.” — Joyce Meyer