The Compound Effect of Love

The difference that red velvet cake can make

“Cake delivery service! Check outside your door,” said a message that popped up on my phone. Sure enough, courtesy of my lovely neighbour Lucy, two tall red velvet slices lay nestled cozily beside each other in a clear plastic box on the mat.

It was one of the better things to happen at 22:01 on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday night.

It also pointed to something much more significant: a remedy for most of our everyday ills. I should point out here that I don’t mean the cake itself (though that certainly helps) but the act of giving it.

Try this thought experiment. Bring to mind something that’s been troubling you: feeling disconnected from others, the health of someone you love, the job you dislike.

Chances are, you’ve been dwelling on this worry enough that it makes you feel restless and ineffectual; you’re not sure what you can do about it.

But there’s almost always some aspect of it, no matter how small, that is in your power.

When you feel lonely, you can pick up the phone and call someone who you know would be happy to hear from you. You might want to go through your contact list and send a message to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. If all else fails, sit down with a steaming mug of red berry tea and write. Write to your aunt to say you’re thinking of her; write to your cousin to remind him of the Chinese restaurant you both loved and haven’t thought about in years; write to your old work colleague to share an app you’ve found that she might enjoy.

If someone you care about is unwell, work on the things you can do to make their day better. Find them books, puzzles, movies and old photographs they’d like. Make them a funny snack (it may be childish, but if it makes them laugh, does that matter?). Most of all, if you can, just sit with them. If they want to talk, listen.

A job you don’t love and feel shackled to can be really draining; you might feel it’s a situation you can’t possibly improve upon. The truth is, though, that there are lots of tiny actions you can take that will make your workday 2% better. These could be the playlist you listen to on your commute, the conversations you choose to have with your colleagues or the special lunch you plan for yourself on Wednesday afternoons.

You’ve heard this plenty of times before: it’s the little things you do that count. You may not have taken the time to deeply consider, though, the way that actions infused with love whirl out and reverberate in the world, creating change we can’t even begin to imagine.

The message you send your cousin isn’t just 240 characters of text. It may be the one thing that turns his day around and makes him decide to give his partner an unexpected compliment for the pesto she prepared that night — in turn, she might want to call her mom and thank her for the recipe.

Watching Hamilton with your brother when he’s feeling ill could end up being one of your favourite memories together. The silly rhymes you come up with afterward might spark an idea in him for a funny gift he could surprise his daughter with.

The actions you take on your own behalf are equally powerful. Changing the music you listen to before work could give you the impetus to start actively looking for a different job or spot an opportunity you hadn’t seen before.

As a maths tutor, I spend some time trying to emphasize the magic of compound interest to my students. They’re always surprised when they see how it can double a small amount of money in a short space of time.

Compound fairy dust
Image by Roshan Daryanani

Love compounds too, in a way that’s even more remarkable.

compand tree
Image by Roshan Daryanani

In the book Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, author David Eagleman outlines fictional scenarios that he imagines at the end of our time on Earth. In one of them, he describes how each of us might be invited to sit in front of a screen in which we can watch the world from a distance. He points to something curious:

In theory, you could choose to watch anything: the private activities of single people in their apartments, the unfolding plans of saboteurs, the detailed progress of battlefields.

But, instead, we all watch for one thing: evidence of our residual influence in the world, the ripples left in our wake. You follow the successes of an organization you started or led. You watch appreciative people read the books you donated to your local religious group. You watch an irrepressible girl with pink shoes climbing the maple tree you planted. These are your fingerprints left on the world; you may be gone, but your mark remains. And you can watch it all.

You don’t have to wait for a mythical afterlife to do this. When faced with an opportunity to bring a little more kindness into a situation, think about how one simple action could multiply and end up touching people you will never meet. Remember that there’s no currency quite like love — every time you spend it, it dances out into the world and then back to you in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Some of them even taste like red sponge cake with cheesecake frosting.

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