Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Giving to Others is a Gift to Yourself

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Giving to others is a gift to yourself. I am always reminded of this during the holiday season when I search online for the perfect gifts for friends and family. It’s also a time that I focus on worthy causes to meet my annual charitable giving goals. These latter gifts are very gratifying, especially when I give to things I believe in, where I am involved. I have discovered that I feel good when doing good.

JK Rowling, author of the highly successful Harry Potter series obviously zeroed in on this important concept as well. A few years ago, she was dropped from the Forbes annual list of billionaires because she 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 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 how to improve your life by 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, Dr. 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.

A few years ago, Yacoobi was 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 benefited from getting an education outside her country and she wants to share that at home. As a lonely woman executive working in a male-dominated business I learned 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 dedicated much of my retirement to mentorship of women. It is my way of giving and it is very gratifying.

Ten years ago, we invited some women from Afghanistan to come to Saskatchewan for mentorship. Dr. Sakena Yacoobi and I shared a podium at a conference in Italy following which she approached me and asked for help. It wasn’t easy getting visas for the women to come, yet, despite the many hurdles, a small group of Saskatoon women and I 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 to interact 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.

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