Giving to others is a gift to yourself. I am always reminded of this at Christmas, the giving time of the year. I not only hit the malls looking for the perfect gifts for friends and family I focus on worthy causes to meet my annual charitable giving goals. These latter gifts especially, make me feel good because I am doing good.
JK Rowling, author of the highly successful Harry Potter series has obviously zeroed in on this important concept as well. She was dropped from the Forbes annual list of billionaires because she has depleted her net worth with so much charitable giving.
At one time a single mom living on welfare, Rowling knows the inherent hardships. As a result, she has donated around $160 million to help families in similar situations. Unlike many traditional billionaires who look for ways to escape giving or paying taxes, Rowling says that she has far more than she needs and feels a moral responsibility to spread the wealth.
She is the antithesis of many billionaires in another regard, having found a way to use her money to bring happiness. Authors of The Science of Smarter Spending, Dunn and Norton did years of qualitative and quantitative research on money and happiness. Contrary to popular opinion, they found that money can buy happiness, but only if you spend it on others instead of yourself.
Rowling is a shining example of what Arianna Huffington describes when advocating the third metric. She says that to immediately improve your life start improving the lives of others. Fortunately, we don’t have to give away anything near to the level of Rowling to experience that warm glow. Research shows that in poor countries like Uganda individuals who give even the smallest amounts are happier than those who don’t.
Another women who has dedicated her life to giving is Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning. Under Taliban rule in her country, Yacoobi risked her life everyday by running 80 secret schools for girls. Her organization continues to advance education under the still dangerous circumstances in Afghanistan today.
She was recently named the recipient of the Opus Prize, presented by Georgetown University for people dedicated to solving world problems such as illiteracy. I know Dr. Sakena Yacoobi personally and can vouch for the worthiness of her one million dollar win. When asked what she would do with the money she declared that she would spend it on more education for Afghan citizens, of course!
Our individual focus for giving is often based on our personal experiences. Just as Rowling was a single mom who knows those hardships, Yacoobi was an educated woman in a country where that is unusual and she knows its value. As a lonely woman executive working in a male-dominated business I know how difficult it is to navigate that minefield and how slim the margin for error. I also know how much women bring to organizations and for that reason I have founded a mentorship program aimed at getting more women to the decision-making table. It is my way of giving and it is very gratifying.
Two years ago we extended an opportunity to participate in our program to some women from Afghanistan. Sakena approached me to do this after I shared a podium with her at a conference in Italy. It wasn’t easy and in spite of many hurdles, myself and a small group of Saskatoon women made it a reality. Bringing over Afghan Institute of Learning teachers and have them join our mentorship program was a rewarding and inspiring experience with ripple effects throughout the community.
One of the most touching examples came during a visit to an alternate school where many students and their families live below the poverty line and there are lots of special needs. At a roundtable discussion with high school students, Sakena talked about how difficult it is for mothers in Afghanistan who have lost their husbands. Most are ostracized with no ability to support their children.
“What about social assistance?” a young woman asked. When Sakena replied that her country is poor and couldn’t provide help, the girl was taken aback. Obviously this aid had been important to her family and it was shocking for her to consider how they would have managed without it.
After the meeting this same young woman came and sought out Sakena. She said, “You really touched my heart with the stories of the women in Afghanistan and I want to help. I am going to organize a fundraiser for you.”
It brought tears to my eyes – here was someone who had so little but wanted to give of herself by helping others. As we left the school, I could see the young woman standing a little taller and walking with more confidence.
This experience demonstrates three attributes of successful giving: it is more gratifying to give to things where you have had personal experience, it is more rewarding have interaction with the recipients and a small gift of a negligible amount can be immensely fulfilling.
Each of us can find places to give in our lives that meet these criteria. Imagine how good we’d feel if every day we gave a gift – even if it was something little like a card, a book or a flower. It doesn’t have to be much. It’s not the gift, as Mother Teresa said, “it’s what we put into the giving”.
Giving detaches us from our obsessive thinking about ourselves. It breaks down loneliness by creating a human connection. Giving and happiness feed one another- both are intertwined. Start today by becoming aware of things that you believe in, things that are meaningful for you and find a place to give. By improving the lives of others you’ll feel good and will do good.