Making Change

A psychologist provides guidelines to help individuals define their best pathways to change

Start Today: Feel More Satisfied with Life

You can benefit by being generous to yourself and those around you

Caring, kindness, and generosity generate a sense of goodness and warmth that often catches on; much like the small flame from a match can light a roaring bonfire.

I read a wonderful example of this in the most recent newsletter from the Insight Meditation Society. Greg Scharf, a meditation teacher, shared the experience that a colleague had some years ago while meditating in a cave in Burma. An adolescent girl was working nearby; she earned about thirty-five cents a day by carrying bricks on her head for a mason. Upon learning that this man was meditating, she supported him by using about three days of her wages to buy a can of soda for him. He was so moved by this open-hearted giving that he – along with an abbot from a local monastery – started a project to help the village. Over a number of years, they built a school and additions to a hospital, along with doing many other good works. People from around the globe have even supported these projects. “And it all began with that initial gift of a can of soda, offered from a place of purity of heart.”

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While Mr. Scharf shares how a simple act of giving blossomed into an outpouring of good works, he did not address how it felt to the girl. While I can’t know this, I’m relatively sure that she personally benefitted from giving that soda – or, more precisely, from being caring and generous. Being kind to others makes people happy and gives them a sense of meaning. Helping others also gives people a sense of accomplishment. And, as if that’s not enough, people who give in person to strangers experience less stress and better health.

These benefits are multiplied many times over when people treat themselves with caring and compassion. Not only do they feel happy and satisfied with life, but they also show greater emotional strength. They tend to cope with difficulties in healthy ways, such as reaching out to friends, rather than in unhealthy ways, such as emotional overeating or drinking. This helps them to be emotionally resilient. For instance, if their project at work is met with criticism, they are able to keep the feedback in context, not becoming overwhelmed by feelings of failure. And because they feel good about themselves, they have a natural tendency to pursue the things that make them happy; they are motivated to grow and change.

Please think about what you’ve just read. Do you want to enjoy the benefits from being more caring, generous, and compassionate? Honestly, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t. It doesn’t need to cost you money. It doesn’t need to cost you much time. The only really necessary “cost” is a commitment to act more regularly in a generous and compassionate way. Try it out:

Give to others with “purity of heart”: Find ways to incorporate generosity into your life. Make it a practice to smile at people throughout your day. Take a moment to be helpful, such as picking up a paper someone has dropped. Commit yourself to finding a cause that you really connect with emotionally; then donate time or money to it on a regular basis. Or, just choose to be kinder to people around you. It will make you at least a little happier.

Be compassionate to yourself: We all have limits. We have our weaknesses and make mistakes. By recognizing this and accepting it, you will see yourself with greater compassion. For instance, when you are so tired you can’t see straight and every problem feels like another mountain you need to climb, it helps to respect your need for rest. With a good night’s sleep, the world will seem at least a little brighter and many of those mountains will shrink to small hills (maybe even some ant hills).

Amazing changes can happen with compassion and simple acts of generosity– from giving someone a can of soda to putting yourself to bed when what you need most is sleep. Think about it this way: Compassion and kindness are the sunshine that can nurture beauty and well-being in yourself and those around you.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

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