The Joy of Giving

Posted on Oct 18, 2013

Giving is receiving, and if you take you should also give. Really?

We've been told this a thousand times. Every charity, every parent, every teacher trying to teach us compassion and kindness.

But if it's really so great, if giving is the best way we receive, why do people who give nothing sometimes receive everything? We live in a time where those who do good don't always get paid, and those who get paid don't always do good.

Still, I think our teachers and parents are right: Giving is receiving, though probably not in the way you think.

Giving is a great joy. But if we give only to receive, when giving doesn't promise an immediate reward the only logical action is not to give.

Amidst compulsory service requirements and corporate social responsibilities, we should remember that you don't need a reason to help others. This line came from a video game character. Perhaps only a ficititious person could ever believe such an unreasonable thing.

Does altruism really exist? Economists have struggled with this for ages, for it flies in the face of an assumption central to modern economics - that people are completely rational and self-maximising.

One nobel-prize winning economist has this to tell us: Happiness comes from two distinct, separate parts of us - the remembering self, and the experiencing self.

While both bring us happiness, we place far too much priority on the experiencing self. The person who goes on an amazing holiday, where everything goes smoothly as planned, has his experience entirely ruined if things turn sour on the last day - maybe his flight gets delayed, or his plane seat was uncomfortable.

By contrast, the person who goes on a mediocre holiday, with ups and downs along the way, feels on a whole happier when the last day turns out fine.

Our current experiences can unjustifiably overshadow good memories. But how is this related to giving?

Supposed you're hungry, and you have a large cheeseburger in front of you. You want it, but your sister sitting next to you does too. You could eat it, and it'd be a great experience. But later you're hungry again, and the happiness you experienced from eating the burger vanishes.

Or you could give it to her. And you'd go hungry for the moment while you find something else to eat. The next time you're hungry, you remember that you give your sister that burger the last time, and you feel slightly proud of yourself for that. Next week, perhaps, when you're hungry again, you still remember what you did, and can still feel happy about it.

The things we do to make ourselves happy vanish the moment we feel sad again. But the things we do to make others happy - that time we returned a lost wallet, when we helped a friend pass his test, when we really made a difference in someone else's life - these moments last forever. Even if that person we helped feels sad right now, we can still feel happy recalling what we did.

Memories are what keeps us going through route marches, exams, and other stressful periods. Every time we give, we create another irreversible memory for our remembering self to keep.

In the end, giving is receiving, not because receiving is something which follows from giving, but because receiving is something naturally inherent in giving.

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