When she was 8 years old, Lara Aknin convinced her little brother to trade his dimes for her nickels. It was an easy sell… after all, nickels are bigger and must therefore be worth more.
Now a psychologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Dr. Aknin has discovered a mistake more profound than youthful embezzlement: in truth, her motivation itself was built on a misunderstanding of human nature.
In an interview with NPR’s Shankar Vendatam, Dr. Aknin describes the experiment in which her team asked toddlers to feed candies to hand-puppets which, they were told, would really enjoy the treats. Considering that these children were still too young to have absorbed any cultural awareness of giving as a value, the results produced two surprises. Explains Dr. Aknin:
“Children smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves. But what we thought was particularly exciting was that children actually smiled significantly more when they gave away one of their own treats than an identical treat provided by the experimenter.”
THE SOURCE OF HAPPINESS
In other words, the greatest feelings of joy may come from giving up that which we treasure the most.
But does the impulse remain as we grow into adulthood? Dr. Aknin continues:
“We recruited a sample of students in the morning hours on campus, gave them either five or twenty dollars to spend that day and simply asked them to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else. And then we called them back in the evening to find out how they were feeling. And what we found was that people who were randomly assigned to spend the money on others were significantly happier than those who spent on themselves.”
Of course, it can be painful to give. But if there’s no effort, is it really giving? And if not, how could it produce pleasure? Indeed, one of the most distressing misconceptions of conventional wisdom is that pain and pleasure are opposites, when in fact they are companions. Just ask any parents the source of their greatest pleasure; they will almost universally answer their children, who are also the source of their greatest pain.
BREAKING THROUGH THE SHELL
What happens when we give? We expand, literally, by pushing our personal boundaries outward to include others. And, as Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
By doing so, however, we create connections that transform us into more than we previously were. We understand ourselves better while learning to understand those around us and, at the same time, we allow others to discover who we are. When we give, we become something more that we were, we attach ourselves to the fulfillment of a higher purpose by benefiting the world we live in, and we experience true happiness.
Conversely, when we look for opportunities to take, we see others merely as the vehicles for our own gratification and thereby cut ourselves off from their intrinsic value as human beings. Even worse, by becoming takers we forfeit our own sense of self-worth by contributing nothing to our world.
King Solomon taught this lesson nearly 3000 years ago when he observed in Proverbs that:
The one who hates gifts shall live.
By eschewing gifts, one cultivates the hardwired impulse for giving with which we are naturally endowed, resulting in a quality of life that can never be achieved by a taker.
PUTTING PRINCIPAL INTO PRACTICE
Practically speaking, it’s not that hard to change our fundamental nature and transform ourselves from givers into takers. Begin with these four steps to becoming a giver.
Give a little more than a lot. When you’re checking out of the drug store, passing an indigent person on the sidewalk, or walking into the supermarket in December, reach in your pocket and give a quarter or a dollar bill. We can all afford that, can’t we?
“But so little won’t make any difference at all!” you say. In fact, it will. Most charities rely on many little donations rather than a few big ones. My tiny contribution, together with the contributions of others like me, keeps me sensitive, rather than indifferent, to the plight of others less fortunate than I am.
Furthermore, through many little acts of generosity I train myself to become a giver, inculcating the giving impulse into my nature. When a big opportunity to give does come along, I’ll be much more inclined to give.
Just say yes to giving. “Could you give me a ride to the airport?” “Would you take care of my dog while I’m out of town?” “Will you lend me $100 till payday?”
In a society that has grown increasingly selfish, we become more likely to answer minor impositions with a reflexive “no.” But when friends and acquaintances ask for a favor, pause for moment to consider how big an imposition it really is. Am I planning to do something important with that extra hour, or will I spend it on Facebook?
Then ask yourself: What’s more important: helping our a person in need or watching cat videos?
Just say no to taking. Advertisers love the word “free.” Why? Because they know that we love it, too.
Just because something is free doesn’t mean we really need it or will ever use it. So whenever tempted by promotional freebees or gratuitous favors, pause again and ask yourself: Do I need this? Will I use this? Am I taking for any reason other than because something is free?
By resisting the impulse to accept free stuff, we subdue the acquisitive nature of being takers.
TURNING TAKING INTO GIVING
But this seems to create a problem of its own: If there are no takers, how can anyone give? King Solomon provides an answer to that question as well.
Notice that he does not say, refuse gifts and live, but rather hate gifts and live. The distinction is critical.
Which brings us to Step Number 4: Be a giver even when you take.
When someone else wants to give to us, refusing a gift can be both selfish and cruel. However, to accept a gift not for the sake of what is being given but in order to allow someone else to give – that itself becomes an act of authentic giving.
When we define ourselves solely in terms of our own desires, we condemn ourselves to the inevitable smallness of the individual. But when we define ourselves in the context of what we can contribute to the world around us, there is no limit to what we can become.
This is what the existentialist Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk seems to have meant when he observed:
If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.
In other words, I can only become the person I am meant to be when I actively look to help others become who they were meant to be and allow them to do the same for me. Only by connecting to one another through giving can we fully and successfully become our true selves.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. Check out his new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, now available on Amazon.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.