There is perhaps no greater feeling than that of being of service to those in need. We are wired for altruism despite a popular pessimism on the generosity of the human spirit. We are quick to assume that most people won’t do the right thing when tested. A recent news report told the story of a man who found $98,000 in a desk he had bought from an ad on Craigslist, for $150.00. The story made headlines because to the amazement of the seller, the man, a Connecticut Rabbi, returned the entire sum after finding it hidden in the back panel of the desk. The owner had explained that the money was an inheritance he had forgotten about. I know, hard to believe, but which part of the story is more incredible? I think most of us would find the first part even more unlikely than the second. In fact the seller expressed this very sentiment stating “I do not think there are too many people in this world that would have done what you did by calling me”. Maybe not. But maybe still, it is more common than we think.
The gift of giving sparks in our human brains an extreme sense of purpose and well-being – feelings that lift our moods more than that of receiving and in fact stay with us much longer than the rewards of being gifted. Research has shown that raises in salary only motivate employees for very short periods of time, but employees who felt useful and productive reported feeling greater motivation and personal satisfaction over the long haul.
So it may come as a surprise that many people experience negative feelings around asking for help. Many of my clients report feeling like a burden at even the thought of it. Worse still, they feel needy and unlikeable. Yet when I ask them how they feel when they are the ones doing the giving, they immediately light up and become quite animated. Memories quickly come to mind, of being there for others in a time of need and how those very experiences provoked a strong sense of being alive and of immense well-being. Many describe it as not just fulfilling but of being filled up as well. The act of giving has a special way of healing our own wounds and filling the holes left from early unmet needs.
So why do we cheat others of this wonderful opportunity to feel good while benefitting ourselves in the process? It is the ultimate win-win proposition!
Of course not all giving and taking feels the same. There will always be times and people who are the exception, people who perhaps unconsciously (or sadly consciously) seek to use others, take advantage, or rely excessively on the graciousness of other people’s resources. We usually know the difference pretty quickly and, instead of experiencing the altruistic spark, we feel resentful and drained. When we weed out those unfortunate exceptions however, we find nourishment in a very unexpected place.
I have over the years come to deeply appreciate the prayer of St. Francis and find the last verse profoundly beautiful:
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.