By Dr. Mara Karpel

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

~ Winston Churchill

©M. Karpel, 2015

©M. Karpel, 2015

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a photo of an elderly man who was panhandling in a New York City subway station. The man was in a wheelchair and was holding an old-style flip-phone. My friend’s comment was that this man was tricking people out of money because he had enough of his own to buy a cellphone. Some of the comments that followed from his friends continued to berate the man, with one friend stating that such scamming was hurtful to the kind people who gave him money.

“What if this man is actually not homeless, but is lying to people just to collect more money? Should we still give him a quarter? We are not helping beggars by giving them money, if they are scamming people and using any of the proceeds to buy cigarettes or [other similar unhealthy items],” wrote that Facebook friend.

I later sent a message to my friend that I learned that veterans can’t receive their VA benefits if they’re homeless, unless they have a Post Office box and a phone. This did not seem to satisfy, as he wanted “empirical evidence” that this man was, in fact, a veteran and homeless in order to believe that his panhandling was not hurting anyone.

This inspired me to look further into the phenomenon of generosity. When I looked up the word, generosity, this is one definition that I found: “The habit of giving without expecting anything in return.”

Perhaps, my FB buddies have their particular perspective because of the fact that they live in New York City, where they are bombarded daily with people coming at them, trying to sell something or asking for something. When I lived in NYC, I learned to walk with imaginary blinders on, not even paying attention to all of the people milling around me or approaching me. Realistically, if I were to stop for every person that wanted to somehow engage with me, I would be extremely worn out and late when I finally arrived at my destination. I also grew up having a high level of suspiciousness in this urban environment, knowing that if I stopped for one person, someone else might take advantage of the opportunity to steal from me.

Since living outside of NY, in an environment with a less concentrated population, I’ve had the luxury of spending time actually paying attention to the people around me. This has given me the chance to allow myself to feel compassion for that person on the corner who looks like they could use any kind of help offered to them. When I give whatever I am able to in that moment, I know that this is my choice. And, frankly, it feels good when I do it. I believe I’m benefitting as much as, or more than, the recipient of my generosity.

Studies have shown that the benefits to the giver have been found to be numerous. Should we expect that person to do something in return for us? Should 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? The research shows that neither of those behaviors contributes to our feel-good experience. In fact, having some expectation as a result of giving actually takes away the benefits to us from this act of giving.

Jonathan Wells, founder of Advanced Life Skills, explains, “We all realize that giving on any level feels really good, but internally all forms of giving are not created equal.  This is where motives come in. When we give with the expectation of receiving something in return, we are not really giving from a pure motive. But when we give from a generous heart, the joy of giving becomes its own reward.”

In their book, The New Health Rules, Dr. Frank Lipman and Danielle Claro recommend in order to improve our physical and emotional health, “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, give a compliment you really mean. Make your default mode one of generosity. It’s a nice way to live and it’s contagious.”


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.

It’s no accident that generosity, or giving without expectation, is seen as a core virtue in most religions and spiritual paths. In Christianity, such generosity is referred to in Luke 6:35, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” And St. Francis of Assisi is known for saying, “For it is in giving that we receive.”

Tithing goes beyond Christianity. Eastern religions speak of the practice of giving. The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward, and we give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient. 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.”


Generosity and Finding Meaning

There are many ways to practice generosity. We can give money or objects to someone in need, we can give our time, or we can give practical help or advice. However we do it, one of the most powerful things we can do to find meaning in our own lives is to help others. And, by finding meaning and purpose in our daily lives, even while engaging in our day-to-day activities, we will maintain our energy and enthusiasm for pursuing our larger goals.

Austrian Psychiatrist Dr. VicktorFrankl said, “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.”

Once one finds that meaning, the sadness and the wish to give up often lifts. Dr. Frankl was a prisoner of two concentrations camps during the Holocaust. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote about his experiences there and what he learned about finding meaning even in the worst of situations. “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.” One of the most powerful acts for keeping oneself sane during such an insane circumstance was to find meaning in helping other people.


Benefits of Generosity

Several recent scientific studies have found generous acts, such as giving of our time as a volunteer, as well as by other altruistic acts of giving, increase our ability to cope with physical pain and other symptoms of chronic diseases.   Giving of our time to help others has also been associated with significant decreases in blood pressure, stomach acid, and cholesterol levels, and increased immunoglobin, which is associated with boosting our immune system. In fact, volunteering has been found to be correlated with a lowered risk of mortality in older adults, decreased symptoms of stress, and better sleep. This is apparently 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).

Another interesting discovery, coined the “Mother Teresa effect,” was found when participants of a study had an increase in a very important immune response, the increase of immunoglobin A, when viewing videos of Mother Teresa helping people. Therefore, when we give without expectation, there’s benefit to the recipients of our giving, benefit to ourselves, and, also benefit to the surrounding community.

Some more benefits of giving without expectation, as pointed out by Jonathan Wells, are that it feels satisfying and stimulates a feeling of gratitude (see Tip #10 in my previous blog, 10 Tips For Following Your Dreams – While Riding Life’s Ups and Downs, for the benefits of “Having an Attitude of Gratitude”). Giving also helps us to be more aware of how abundant we are in our own lives.

For the past few years, there has been an ongoing study conducted at the University of Notre Dame, led by researchers Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson, called the “Science of Generosity Initiative.” Their findings, so far, have shown that the most generous people tend not to be the people with the most money. In addition, this scientific study has 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.


Recipient of the Service to Mankind Award, Sgt. Will Williams on Generosity

Veteran Sergeant Will Williams has appeared on my radio show, Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years, numerous times throughout the last three years. Sgt. Williams was awarded the Service to Mankind Award in 2014 because of the many ways he gives of his time and, even his own money, to children with disabilities, battered women, veterans, and families of veterans. I recently had a chance to sit down with Sgt. Williams to discuss this topic of giving without expectation.

“My mom says, ‘It makes your heart happy,’” stated Williams upon opening this discussion. “I get excited to see other people’s faces when they receive something that they need.”

I questioned him about about giving anonymously? His response: “It feels great! It doesn’t get any better than that.”

When asked about giving to someone who might use bad judgment in their choice of how to use his gift or, even worse, someone who has lied and really doesn’t need the money, Williams replied, “It’s not my job to judge what someone does with the gift I give them. I only have control over what I do and it makes me feel good to give.”


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. Tiny Buddha founder, Lori Deschene, writes in her blog, “20 Ways to Give Without Expectations,” “Give money you can spare to someone who needs it and then pretend you never had it.” Remember, whatever you give, whether it’s time, money, or help, do it with an open heart and without expectation or judgment.

As author, Bonnie Ann Lewis writes, “The true meaning of giving is giving with an open heart without expecting anything in return.” Doing this will create benefit, not only to the receivers of your generosity and to the community, but the biggest benefit might be to you.

Finally, be generous because, as the late great folk singer, Pete Seeger, said, “Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.”

©M. Karpel, 2015

©M. Karpel, 2015

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