Impact of Ideas

Strangers with cookies: How a TED Talk inspired college students to do a highly altruistic act during finals week

The McGregor Reading Room at the University of Virginia is sometimes referred to as the “Harry Potter Room.” All  bookshelves, oriental carpets and chandeliers, the room earned its nickname for its posh look and the fact that it’s a favorite spot for studying. But last December, this room filled with a little real-life magic: the smell of freshly baked cookies.

One night during finals week, three friends — brothers Danisch and Faiq Malik, along with longtime pal Intesar “Thar” Tariq — bought nine boxes of chocolate chip cookies and passed them out in the reading room, gratis. This random act of kindness was inspired by Shawn Achor’s TED Talk, “The happy secret to better work.” Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work

Faiq Malik, a fourth year at American University, was the first in the group to watch the talk. “I took last semester off because I had a lower-back surgery,” he explains. “I had just come off of a really good finance internship, and was really looking forward to going back to school, and it was kind of a buzzkill … You have to be very resilient in a time like that — really patient. So I was going to TED.com a lot because it was good for uplifting speeches.”

When he watched Achor’s talk, it spoke to him. “He talked about being happy right now,” says Faiq. “Because a lot of us who are trying to get into investment banking say, ‘Listen, you’ve just got to get through your two years, sweat it out, and then you’ll be fine after that.’ And when you’re in school, you have that feeling where, ‘No, I can’t have fun, because I’ve got to study.’ The whole message to me was: happiness increases your dopamine level, and it helps you become more efficient and effective. That was something that was new to me. … That being happy makes your work better in some sense.”

Faiq shared the talk with his brother, a fourth year at UVA, and their friend, a third year there. The group was riveted, especially by the end of the talk where Achor lists  simple strategies for increasing happiness. The three made a pledge to try some of the things Achor suggested, like keeping a journal and consciously doing nice things for others.

“We were just kind of holding ourselves accountable,” says Danisch Malik. “We were reminding each other, ‘Make sure you write your journal. Make sure you do one act of kindness a day.’”

Flash forward to finals week.

“I came up with this random idea: how about we go to the library, and we buy everybody cookies,” says Danisch.

The group was instantly excited by the idea and hoped that, if people felt happy, they’d do better studying than they would if they were stressed. The trio called Campus Cookies, a local business that delivers, and bought nine boxes of cookies. “We asked them to deliver it straight to the library,” says Danisch.

When the cookies arrived, they were hot out of the oven — in fact, painfully so. “It was like I was holding pizzas,” remembers Danisch. “Some of the people were taking them out of the bottom of the box, and they were melting.”

Talking to strangers wasn’t so easy at first, either.

“It was a little weird in the beginning. We thought, ‘What if people are like, ‘Get out of here!’ We didn’t want to inconvenience people,” explains Danisch. But the reaction was, as you might have guessed, far more excited than annoyed. Thar Tariq followed the brothers as they passed out cookies, filming the reactions of students on a cell phone. By the end up on the night, he had used up all the space on it. The trio stayed up until 3am editing the video, which you can watch above.

“I had one guy, at 1:10, who was just like amazed,” says Danisch. “He just had no way to express his emotion, because he had a 20-page paper he had to do, and he just was shocked. There were also four girls sitting at this one table. I was like, ‘Hey, you guys want cookies? You know what? Just take the whole box.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’”

Thar added his own spin to the action too. He says, “I started giving everybody a high-five and telling them, ‘Go get an A on that exam.’”

After the three posted their video on YouTube, the UVA blog wrote about it. From there, they started getting emails from alumni. Then, the story got picked up by Buzzfeed and they started to get feedback from as far away as from Canada.

“That just meant the world to us,” says Thar. “We just wanted to make people’s day.”

Especially exciting for the trio — that Shawn Achor himself saw their video. He even tweeted at them, “Great work! :)”