"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." ~ Winston Churchill
I saw a photo on Facebook of an elderly man panhandling in New York City. He was in a wheelchair and holding an old-style flip-phone. A comment was made about how this man was tricking people out of money because he obviously had enough to buy a cellphone. One person wrote on the thread that such scamming is hurtful to the kind people who gave him money. I later learned that veterans cannot receive their VA benefits if they are homeless, unless they have a post office box and a phone.
Since I have moved from New York to an environment with a less concentrated population, I've had the luxury of time and space to pay attention to the people around me and to feel compassion for that person asking for help on the corner. When I give, I know that this is my choice and it feels good. In fact, studies have found that the benefits to the giver are numerous. However, the benefits are only experienced when we expect nothing in return.
Research shows that the benefits that would come to us when we give without expectation diminish when we expect the recipient of our generosity to do something in return for us -- or if we follow them to make sure they're spending that money on what we think they should -- or to make sure that they are in dire need of this money. Sound familiar?
Benefits of Generosity
Several recent studies have found that being generous increases our ability to cope with physical pain and symptoms of chronic diseases. Volunteering has been associated with significant decreases in blood pressure, stomach acid, and cholesterol levels, and increased Immunoglobin-A, which boosts our immune system. In addition, volunteering has been correlated with a lowered risk of mortality in older adults, decreased symptoms of stress, and better sleep. This is due to the phenomenon called the helper's high, which is a release of endorphins (those natural mood-elevating and pain-reducing chemicals produced by the brain) when we engage in an act of generosity. Furthermore, a series of studies at the University of Notre Dame's, Science of Generosity Initiative, have found that those people who demonstrate more generosity tend to be emotionally happier, physically healthier, and to have a greater feeling of purpose and meaning in their lives.
In fact, an interesting phenomena, coined the Mother Teresa Effect, was found when participants of a study had an increase of immunoglobin-A when viewing videos of Mother Teresa helping people. Therefore, our generosity not only benefits the recipients and ourselves, but also benefits those who observe it.
Generosity and Finding Meaning
One of the most powerful things we can do to find meaning in our own lives is to help others. We can give money or objects to someone in need, we can give our time, or we can give practical help or advice. Finding meaning and purpose in our daily lives will bring joy to our lives and enthusiasm to pursue our own dreams (see my blog, 10 Tips for Following Your Dreams - While Riding Life's Ups and Downs).
Austrian Psychiatrist, Dr. Vicktor Frankl wrote,
"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed ... when we are no longer able to change a situation ... we are challenged to change ourselves."
Dr. Frankl was a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, he wrote,
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread ... They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
He found that one of the most powerful acts for keeping oneself sane during such an insane situation was to find meaning in helping other people.
Generosity as a Spiritual Path
"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good," wrote English essayist, Samuel Johnson.
Generosity is seen as a core virtue in most religions and spiritual paths. In Christianity, St. Francis of Assisi is known for saying, "For it is in giving that we receive." The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward, we give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient, and that we practice giving to release greed and self-clinging. Persian Poet Hafiz of Shiraz said,
"Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, 'you owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky."
Ways to Give
Volunteer at a non-profit. Help your neighbors. Make someone who is feeling blue laugh. Give money to someone in need or contribute to a charity.
Health coach and author, Stacey Chillemi, was recently a guest on my radio show. One of the books she has written is about kindness. In her book, Learning to Be Kind: Over 300 Ways to Be Kind & Show Appreciation, Chillemi lists several ways to be generous. My favorites include:
• Buy a lottery ticket for a stranger
• Forgive someone who owes you money
• Leave a dollar bill on the ground for someone else to find.
In their book, The New Health Rules, Dr. Frank Lipman and Danielle Claro recommend,
"Forget pay-it-forward or anything about karma. This is just about being nice and good with no expectations of reciprocity or personal gain. Let someone cut ahead of you in line, listen to someone who needs an ear, or give a compliment you really mean. Make your default mode one of generosity. It's a nice way to live and it's contagious."
Whatever you give, whether it's time, money, or help, doing it without expectation or judgment will create benefit, not only to the receivers of your generosity and to the community, but the biggest benefit might be to you.