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Thousands Find Happiness and Health by Giving Gifts

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Despite my dislike of the movie Pay It Forward, I love the idea behind it. Doing something nice for others really does create a chain effect. One person feels so touched by the kind, unwarranted gesture that he or she wants to inspire the same feeling in someone else. Generosity levels are on the rise this time of year, but most of the focus is on tangible gifts, like fun tech gadgets or jewelry. We tend to forget that it’s often the smallest gestures that mean the most to people. 

That’s why movements like 29 Gifts, a monthly gift-giving challenge started by Cami Walker, are so innovative and rewarding. For twenty-nine days, participants make a goal of giving away one thing to someone else every day—it can be as simple as a smile or as generous as they can afford. For Walker and her followers, the reward is greater than anything they part with in the process. 

How It All Began
“We change lives—and change the world—one gift at a time.” This is the mission of 29 Gifts, which was started by one woman and now involves thousands of people in almost forty countries. The project was born one sleepless and particularly difficult night in Cami’s life. She was struggling with pain from a recently-diagnosed disease—multiple sclerosis—and felt frustrated and lost. Leafing through an old journal, she came across a passage she’d written after speaking with Mbali Creazzo, a South African medicine woman who’s now the spiritual advisor for the entire 29 Gifts team. Mbali told her to focus on giving things away as a way to alleviate her suffering and depression. 

Cami tried it the next day, reaching out to a friend plagued by the same condition. She was so moved by the results that she opened up her goal to the public, blogging about her daily efforts. The movement gained momentum, recruiting contributors all over the world and earning Cami a book deal to write about her pioneering efforts. (The book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, is available now.) Today, she’s participated in at least twenty rounds of gift-giving and inspired many others to do the same. Members start personal challenges and contribute to a community project that supports causes lacking attention from the media. 

Give a Gift, Get a Mood Lift
“I don’t know if it’s the giving or the change of attitude, but I feel better,” Cami shares. After just a few days of gift-giving, she noticed improvements in her physical health—walking more, using her cane less, and having the energy to start working again. She credits the new perspective that 29 Gifts has given her as the key to her healing. “I think I had that power in me already, but it’s just that my mindset was so negative,” she explains. “I was in such a negative space mentally that when I started giving, it helped to shift my energy and made me feel more open.” Rather than focusing on her diagnosis and the pain of her disease, she turned her attention toward finding opportunities to make other people’s days—which cheered her up in the process. 

She’s still amazed at how far 29 Gifts has spread since that bout of insomnia. “It’s not a project I began with any kind of agenda, but there are many blessings that have come from it,” she says. Not only has it strengthened her personal relationships and physical stamina, but it’s given her a completely different outlook on her life. “I feel like the MS diagnosis is a blessing now and that’s a huge change. Three years ago there’s no way I would’ve said that out loud,” she says. But the way she lives her life now—“purposeful and happy,” as she puts it—might not have been possible had she not been diagnosed. She feels that her acceptance of that has been one of the most surprising outcomes of the experience. 

The Power of One Among Many
One of the most fundamental parts of the challenge is sharing the journey and its effects with the entire community. The 29 Gifts Web site has sections where participants can share stories or post artwork, songs, or films—anything that demonstrates what changes, if any, happen along the way. Many community members have blogs in which they share the ups and downs of daily giving. Cami continues to blog as well and her posts are heartfelt and honest, which encourages other members to write with the same freedom. However, she makes it clear that it isn’t a requirement of the challenge. As a seasoned blogger, she’s comfortable using the Web site as an outlet for her emotions throughout the project. But she encourages others to just use the Web site for inspiration or to journal privately. 

While the challenge comes with community support and has worldwide appeal, it’s an individual process at its core. In order to experience the desired effects—increased happiness, mindfulness, a fresh perspective—people must make the challenge work for them. Participating in 29 Gifts isn’t a guarantee of pure happiness for a lot of people, at least not in the midst of it. Some feel overwhelmed by the constant pressure to give while others have guilt about missing a day or two. The Web site makes it clear that forgetting here and there doesn’t signify failure. “Don’t forget that there is never a day you don’t give,” it states. “There are only days that you don’t acknowledge and remember you did.” Even Cami has missed a few days here and there; the point is to keep giving whatever you can, whenever you can. 

“I’m not asking anyone to believe in or prescribe to anything,” Cami maintains. “All I know is that this experience has made me a more positive person and I’ve seen it help thousands of people now.” And really, taking twenty-nine days out of your life to do nice things for others doesn’t seem too hard, given the great results. It might just be the best gift you give yourself all year.

Related story: Stars Donate Their Time for Charity


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