Giving, taking, earning, stealing, squandering, hoarding. These are all human impulses, and we wouldn't be human without them. Yet on this list only one item — giving — appears in the world's wisdom traditions. Why is giving set apart? After all, there's no mystery to why someone might want to earn, hoard, squander, or steal a million dollars. One way or another, most of our daily actions follow the principle of more is better, whereas giving means having less. Do the great spiritual teachers want us to have less? Have they figured out instead a higher way to give that will add increase to our lives?
If you ask people why they give, the readiest answers offer clues to the mystery. God wants me to. I feel better about myself. Others need, and I have. I want to share. It's only right. A hazy halo encircles these good-hearted answers, and if we bring it into focus, the following seems true: Giving takes you out of yourself. You expand beyond your limitations. The inspiration behind CharityFocus, a brainchild of Nipun Mehta, declares that "it's impossible to create a better world without inner change that results from selfless service." This is also the philosophy of Venkat Krishnan (who is hosting"Joy of Giving Week" in India). I have recently joined as a contributor to the StartFund, an organization founded by Dutch philanthropist Fred Matser. This is a very innovative way to mobilize funding for worthy projects without the conventional tedium of fund-raising. Others might argue that inner change precedes selfless service, but no matter. "Selfless" means that you have been taken to a place outside yourself. In the Indian tradition, that happens to be impossible, because all of reality is centered in the self. But they don't mean the self that is involved in tit for tat, this for that, getting and spending. Your true self is an expanded state, and you can only reach it through experience.
When giving results in an experience of love, joy, peace, community, charity, caring, and self-worth, the process of expansion has begun. Some visionaries foresee an economy based entirely on giving. That would be the ideal way to heal the excesses of unfettered capitalism (and many other woes), but the basis for universal giving can only be expansion beyond our present sense of self. Merely turning the tables, expecting to be rewarded for how lavishly you give, won't work. Expansion of the self brings a direct experience of love, joy, and the other things I mentioned. You get a glimpse of ecstasy, the state of standing outside yourself in the infinite field of Being. Stand there, and all the money in the world wouldn't buy a ticket back. You would wish to be there forever. Which is why Jesus offered those pungent words about storing up riches in heaven rather than treasure on earth.
The mystery of giving is revealed only when you crave the ecstasy that has been glimpsed. Then a realization hits you with full force. I must give myself away. Without realizing it, you have been trying to do that all your life. In giving away yourself, you open a conduit for the kind of happiness that no one can ever steal from you. Someone once said that permanent joy results when you can give away your last penny. Actually, the penny is only a symbol. Permanent happiness results when you no longer have a personal stake in the world. When you see through the constant needs of I, me, and mine, no more needs will remain. There is only Being, and then every breath is bliss giving itself to bliss. That's the rhythm of life. I'm sure you've felt it. It came over you the last time you truly gave yourself away. You joined reality once more. You entered the space where holiness resides.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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There is a Chinese saying that goes: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” For centuries, the greatest thinkers have suggested the same thing: Happiness is found in helping others.
For it is in giving that we receive — Saint Francis of Assisi
The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity — Leo Tolstoy
We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give — Winston Churchill
Making money is a happiness; making other people happy is a superhappiness — Nobel Peace Prize receipient Muhammad Yunus
Giving back is as good for you as it is for those you are helping, because giving gives you purpose. When you have a purpose-driven life, you’re a happier person — Goldie Hawn
And so we learn early: It is better to give than to receive. The venerable aphorism is drummed into our heads from our first slice of a shared birthday cake. But is there a deeper truth behind the truism?
The resounding answer is yes. Scientific research provides compelling data to support the anecdotal evidence that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.
But it’s important to remember that giving doesn’t always feel great. The opposite could very well be true: Giving can make us feel depleted and taken advantage of. Here are some tips to that will help you give not until it hurts, but until it feels great:
1. Find your passion
Our passion should be the foundation for our giving. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. It’s only natural that we will care about this and not so much about that, and that’s OK. It should not be simply a matter of choosing the right thing, but also a matter of choosing what is right for us.
2. Give your time
The gift of time is often more valuable to the receiver and more satisfying for the giver than the gift of money. We don’t all have the same amount of money, but we all do have time on our hands, and can give some of this time to help others—whether that means we devote our lifetimes to service, or just give a few hours each day or a few days a year.
3. Give to organizations with transparent aims and results
According to Harvard scientist Michael Norton, “Giving to a cause that specifies what they’re going to do with your money leads to more happiness than giving to an umbrella cause where you’re not so sure where your money is going.”
4. Find ways to integrate your interests and skills with the needs of others
“Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming,” says Adam Grant, author of Give & Take. It is important to be “otherish,” which he defines as being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight.
5. Be proactive, not reactive
We have all felt the dread that comes from being cajoled into giving, such as when friends ask us to donate to their fundraisers. In these cases, we are more likely to give to avoid humiliation rather than out of generosity and concern. This type of giving doesn’t lead to a warm glow feeling; more likely it will lead to resentment. Instead we should set aside time, think about our options, and find the best charity for our values.
6. Don’t be guilt-tripped into giving
I don’t want to discourage people from giving to good causes just because that doesn’t always cheer us up. If we gave only to get something back each time we gave, what a dreadful, opportunistic world this would be! Yet if we are feeling guilt-tripped into giving, chances are we will not be very committed over time to the cause.
The key is to find the approach that fits us. When we do, then the more we give, the more we stand to gain purpose, meaning and happiness—all of the things that we look for in life but are so hard to find.
Jenny Santi is a philanthropy advisor and author of The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving