Give to Live

When life deals you lemons, do more than make lemonade—give it away.

By Laurie Wertich

e all have rough times. We get sick. We fall down. We lose jobs. We lose loved ones. And when these things happen—when we’re down in the dumps—we instinctively look around for a helping hand, for someone to lift us up and set us back on our feet. But what if we have it all backward? What if the real solution to our despair were actually to lend a helping hand? It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others.

Embracing Altruism

Altruism is the selfless concern for the welfare of others. In our fast-paced, competitive world, one might suspect that altruism is dead, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many of us equate altruism with high-stakes giving—on the level of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet—but altruism is not about money; it is about kindness and lending a helping hand in whatever way possible.

Altruism can be as simple as offering to help someone carry a heavy package, or it can fall into the structure of a weekly volunteer commitment. It doesn’t matter how or what we give—it simply matters that we give.

Altruism helps remind us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. “When a community comes together, truly anything is possible,” explains Cami Walker, author of 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life (Da Capo Press, 2009; $13.95). “A group of people can do together what any one of us cannot do alone.”

Walker should know; she is the force behind a burgeoning community of givers who are paying it forward again and again, changing lives and communities one gift at a time. Walker stumbled onto the benefits of giving somewhat accidentally. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Walker had such intense pain and suffering that she slipped into a deep depression. “I was 100 percent self-consumed and putting 110 percent of my energy into being sick,” she recalls.

When she reached out for sympathy from her trusted spiritual adviser, Mbali Creazzo, Walker instead received an unexpected “prescription”—Creazzo told her to give away 29 gifts in 29 days. “I think she saw that I was totally self-consumed and that I needed to have some contact with the outside world,” Walker explains. “I was living such a small existence at that time. I was isolated, alone, and disconnected from my own sense of purpose.”

At first Walker discounted the assignment, but when she embarked on her journey of giving, she was amazed to discover that she felt healthier, happier, and more energetic. In fact, she was able to quit using her cane by the fourteenth day. “I felt a shift immediately,” she says. The results were so astounding that she decided to share the prescription: she created the 29-Day Giving Challenge (www.29gifts.org), an online community that is changing lives one giver—and one recipient—at a time.

“For whatever reason, when people commit to this daily-giving idea, something shifts for them if they follow through,” Walker explains. That shift may be dramatic or subtle, but anyone who follows through reports experiencing change. “You can’t do something nice for someone for 29 days and not have something improve in your own life,” Walker explains enthusiastically. “It’s metaphysically impossible.”

Helper’s High

It turns out that Creazzo and Walker were on to something that has some science behind it. We all know how satisfying it feels to help someone. Now research indicates that it’s more than satisfying—it’s actually good for our health.

Altruism has been shown to produce what researchers have deemed the “helper’s high”—a euphoric feeling that occurs after performing a helpful or kind act. Helper’s high is more than a theory; it’s a real phenomenon that has been measured physically and even shows up on brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging. During helper’s high, the body produces a chemical surge of serotonin, dopamine, and other substances that provide a rush. This euphoric feeling is followed by a longer-lasting period of calm, emotional well-being, and feelings of self-worth.

Altruism and giving have been shown to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, increase pain tolerance, and reduce chronic hostility. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have found that being generous improves overall quality of life and may even increase longevity.1 In fact, a study at the University of California, Berkeley, found that volunteering for at least two organizations was as beneficial as exercising four times a week in terms of reducing mortality rates.2

Scientists continue to study the effects of altruism, kindness, volunteering, and generosity. The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love has funded more than 50 scientific studies related to the topic. But you don’t need to understand the science to reap the benefits of giving.

Flex Your Giving Muscles

Generosity is the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return. Regardless of our financial situation, we all have something to give, whether it’s time, talent, or treasure. The gifts may range from the extravagant to the mundane. The size or scope of the gift does not matter; what matters is the love and the intention behind the gift.

The surprising twist? Giving opens the way for receiving. Walker insists that giving actually opened her up to the gifts in her own life. “There is nothing more healing than loving human contact,” she asserts.

References

1. Post SG. Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2005;12(2):66-77.

2. Oman D, Thoresen CE, McMahon K. Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly. Journal of Health Psychology. 1999;4(3):301-16.

The Giving Guide

Get busy giving and feel your spirits lift.

There is an endless array of opportunities to share your time, talent, and money. Here are just a few ideas:

Leave a kind note for a family member, friend, or co-worker.

Donate blood.

Shovel snow for a neighbor.

Run an errand for someone.

Take a few minutes to call someone who is having a difficult time.

Volunteer at a local soup kitchen.

Write a thank-you note to a teacher who had an impact on your life.

Leave an inspiring note somewhere where a stranger will find it—in a library book, on the windshield of a car, or on the shelf at the grocery store.

Offer to babysit for a parent who needs a break.

Leave a nice note in the mailbox for your mail carrier.

Buy a meal for a homeless person.

Hold a door open for someone whose hands are full.

Let someone go ahead of you in line.

Volunteer to walk dogs at a local animal shelter.

Make eye contact and offer a smile to someone who looks to be having a rough day.

Leave an unexpectedly large tip for a server.

Visit a nursing home and spend time with residents who have no visitors.

Return a borrowed car with a full gas tank.

Leave flowers on someone’s doorstep.

Write a letter in appreciation of good service.

Volunteer to be a mentor to a child or young adult in need.

Donate your expertise to an organization that needs it.

Send flowers to the hospital with instructions that they should be given to someone with no visitors.

Drop off a thank-you note and treats at a police or fire station.

Donate books to a local classroom or library.

Drop off magazines at a local waiting room.

Rake someone’s yard.

Adopt a family in need.

Start a co-worker’s day with a personal delivery of his or her favorite coffee drink.

Take blankets or warm clothes to a homeless person.

Show up to help a friend who is moving.

Grow an extra row of vegetables to donate to a local food bank.

Write an old-fashioned letter to a friend. Everyone loves mail!

Deliver fresh-baked goodies to a neighbor.

Say “yes” when someone asks for help.

Say “thank you”—a lot.

Be kind and patient to the grocery store cashier.

Write a recommendation for someone.

Contact Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) to find volunteer opportunities in your area.

Join the Movement

Want to see how giving can change your life? Commit to the 29-Day Giving Challenge:

Read Cami Walker’s bestselling book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life.

Join the community at www.29gifts.org.

Share your journey and your insights as you embark on a month of giving.

Inspire more giving in your community and the world.