The purpose of Good Virus is: 1) to illustrate that—contrary to what you may see, hear and read in the news—kindness is all around us (THE GOOD) and 2), to inspire people to spread that kindness (THE VIRUS). Good Virus is all about the small things, tiny acts of kindness that don’t cost a lot of money or oblige praise. The essential premise of this project is that many small acts of kindness may make more of a difference than a few big ones.
We are asking people two surprisingly difficult questions:
1) What is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for you?
2) What is the nicest thing that you have done for someone else?
The goal of the project is to assemble an archive of hundreds (or even thousands) of nice acts, then to present this archive in the form of a book and a film with the express intention of creating a laundry list of kind acts in order to inspire people to be aware of the kindness that is all around them, induce the aforementioned transcendental state and inspire people to likewise be kind to others.
Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein wrote a wonderful book called Nudge, which is about “choice architecture” (the context in which people make good and bad choices), with the idea of nudging them to make better choices. One example of choice architecture is called “herding.” Herding is when people follow examples set by their peers, often referred to as “following the crowd,” “keeping up with the Joneses” or “peer pressure.”
One such example: In 1996, Minnesota wanted to improve state tax compliance. Groups of taxpayers were given four kinds of information: One group was told that the taxes went for various types of social projects for the common good. Another group was threatened with punishment for non-compliance. A third group was given information to help them if they were confused as to how to fill out the forms. And the last group was simply told that 90 percent of Minnesotans had already complied in full. Interestingly enough, the only one that had any significant effect was the last one.
So I ask, why not nudge people towards kindness?
Somewhere around 1999, I started buying homeless people lunch. On one occasion, I was pumping gas and a homeless gentleman asked me for change. I was irritated at first (he had cornered me, which was unfair), but when I noticed a mini-mart at the gas station I said, “How about if I buy you something to eat instead?” His eyes lit up. I took him inside and asked him to pick out a sandwich or something. He was afraid to ask for too much, so I was constantly upgrading him. “How about one more for later?…Wouldn’t you like an orange juice to go with that?” and on and on. As I was leaving, a gentleman drove by in a pick-up truck and said, “You, sir, are a good man!” I was pleased of course, but what hit me more was the fact that he had been watching me. I thought to myself, “I’ll bet he will buy a homeless person lunch too.” Kindness could go viral. And that stayed with me.
But we could do better.
A friend of mine who was a high-level marketing executive at American Express often talks about the children’s game “punch-buggy” as an example of good marketing. The rules for the game are simple: Whenever you see a VW Bug, you playfully tap or punch your opponent on the arm. Whoever doles out the most punches wins. As my friend is fond of saying, when he started playing the game he didn’t think that there were too many VWs in New York City. Now he sees VWs everywhere! Part of my secret dream is that Good Virus will be like “punch buggy,” and that after participating in the project—either as a subject or spectator—people will see, as I do, kindness everywhere.
Kindness, of course, is not strictly American either. But I sometimes wonder if we forget that during trying times. I was fortunate enough after graduating from Art School to have lived and worked in Europe for seven years. One of the most profound revelations I had was that people from all over the world share the same fundamental values that Americans have: They want to have a good job, make a good living and take care of their loved ones. I think that if everyone were to have the chance live with different cultures, work with them, spend holidays with them, participate in their economies, instead of just visiting different countries as tourists, the world would be a substantially more tolerant, and consequentially kinder, place.
Viral, global and kind. Now that’s powerful!