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Better to Give Than Receive, Really?

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

“It's more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35, Christian Bible)

This morning I took thirty-five minutes to listen to Dr. Laurie Santos’s Happiness Lab podcast. Santos is a psychologist and professor at Yale. She specializes in well-being and happiness…especially the misconceptions we have around what will make us happy.

For example, it’s counterintuitive that giving to others makes us happier than keeping stuff for ourselves. Today Santos interviewed Josh Greene and Dr. Lara Aknin.

Greene is responsible for coming up with the giving multiplier website. That website offers the most effective ways of giving money to particularly impactful organizations.

Aknin is a social psychologist researcher and professor at Simon Fraser. She conducts studies to ferret out what is going on from a scientific standpoint when we do generous acts. What sort of acts give us the biggest bang (in terms of happiness and desire to repeat the action) and what conditions are more likely to promote generosity?

Giving is getting a lot of press particularly today because today has become known as “Giving Tuesday” (coming after Black Friday and Cyber Monday). The idea was born only twelve years ago. Now there is a non-profit known as “Giving Tuesday.”

“Giving Tuesday,” according to their website, is a movement that “unleashes the power of radical generosity around the world.” The group says their movement is based on a simple idea…to designate a day that encourages people to do good. The “good” can be making someone smile, helping a neighbor or a stranger, giving some of what we have to those who need our help - those sort of ideas.

When I looked on the Giving Tuesday website, I felt buoyed up just by looking at their ideas. One of them really struck me as interesting and unusual. Have a Ben Franklin dinner. What?

As I tried to find out more about a Ben Franklin dinner, it turns out that it did originate with Ben Franklin. Once a week folks in various walks of life got together to dine and to discuss ways of improving themselves and society. It reminded me a lot of the compassion circle that John and I have enjoyed and grown from so much (though we usually do it via zoom and without food).

Other ideas included giving books to little libraries. Since I am a lover of books, that one resonated with me as well. The fifty ways that the Giving Tuesday folks offer has a prelude. They suggest that people do something that uses their strengths and gets them fired up. They remind us that we all have something to give. And we can use November 29th this year (today) as a formal giving day (or we can designate every Tuesday as a personal giving day).

I like their ideas because of the science of happiness. First, it allows us autonomy in the way we give. We can decide when, where, why, and how to give. Choice makes a big difference in how we feel about giving. Also, the way they go about it encourages us to use our own strengths and interests/passions.

I know there are people who get wowed up about malaria nets, but I am passionate about books and connecting folks – like with Ben Franklin dinners or compassion circles.

It also makes a difference if we can see the impact of what we do. Hearing stories, meeting people whose lives were improved somehow by our generosity makes a difference in our level of happiness and desire to repeat our acts of generosity.

And now back to the big premise. Giving makes us happy…and it can help our relationships… and make the world a better place. Win.Win.Win. Our grandmothers told us this. Our religions and wisdom literature tells us this.

Since I am a big believer in the power of simple stories to help guide us (and our children) toward journeying to the good life, I invite you to read, re-read, listen to, share the story of The Quiltmaker’s Gift. It takes about 15 minutes to listen to on youtube. The author, Jeff Brumbeau, has a good take on the paradoxical power of giving to make us truly happy (as well as the common fallacy of thinking that having more/better stuff makes us happy).

In a nutshell the story goes this way. The Quiltmaker makes out-of-this-world beautiful quilts. She only, however, gives the quilts to poor and needy folks. An unhappy king, who wants to become happier and believes the path to that is getting more stuff, has accumulated all the beautiful and valuable things in his kingdom from every single subject.

The king demands a quilt from the quiltmaker. He is denied because he is not poor and needy. There is a bit of intrigue, you can probably guess how it goes.

Eventually through the process of giving away his stuff (becoming unselfish), the king does become genuinely filled with joy. Giving to others is a huge source of happiness… that’s the moral of the story.

And that’s what the science says as well. Researchers have found that even small children learn that generosity feels good. Maybe we forget it along the way. We can take today to experiment and experience the joy of giving.

If you are a grandmother, like me, maybe you'd be interested in finding good children's books which promote giving and encourage generosity. On the parent website I found several recommendations with discussion questions (along with The Quiltmaker's Gift)

How might we journey together, each on our own way, experimenting with regularly giving to others?

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