The Joy of Giving

Why altruism and generosity make us healthier and happier-and how we can all give more.

A Holiday Message for America and Wall Street in Hard Times

Can America become a better country in these hard times?

The Hidden Gifts of Helping: A Holiday Message for America and Wall Street in Hard Times
(www.StephenGPost.com/HiddenGifts)

Stephen G. Post

Ebenezer Scrooge begins in The Christmas Carol with a "Bah humbug!" He is both miserly and miserable. As the story unfolds, he eventually discovers the "givers glow," as I like to call it. He is dancing on the streets in the enduring joy of his new found generosity of heart. A glow stick is a translucent plastic tube containing substances that when combined make light through a chemical reaction. After the glass capsule in the plastic casing is broken, it glows. The brokenness is part of the process. Give and grow, give and glow. Scrooge discovered this at last.

Old Walter Breuning, who died in April of this year, seemed to grasp this basic truth from early in life. Born in 1896, Walter, the world's oldest man and a retired railroad clerk who lived in three centuries, died at age 114 on April 13, 2011, in Great Falls, Montana, where he had lived since 1918. Even as his health began to decline in the two years before his death, he is described as a cheerful soul. "He had that generosity of spirit in him," said his pastor, the Rev. Terry Turner of the local 1st United Methodist Church. Rev. Turner shared a prayer with Walter just an hour before the supercentenarian died. Walter's parents died at ages 50 and 46, and four siblings lived to be 78, 85, 91 and 100. He had a fine memory. He ate only two meals a day, and never ate supper or at night. He had a big breakfast with a lot of fruit, and lunch. He claimed he "drank water all the time." He arose at 6:15 each morning. Walter recommended that people work as long as they can. He worked his entire career on the railroad until he officially retired but in fact he kept working until he was 99. Another life lesson was this: "The more you do for others, the better shape you're in." He also had lots of friends at Rainbow Senior Living. A celebrity in his old age who was interviewed widely, Walter was plain spoken and urged people to work hard and to be kind to each other. (From articles in The Great Falls Tribune.com, Great Falls, Montana. Of special interest was Richard Ecke's "World's Oldest Man Brightened Others' Lives to the End," 15 April 2011. http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20110415/NEWS01/104150324 )

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Sir John Templeton also grasped this basic truth from early in life. On the inside cover of a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, given to me in 1986 by the Rev. William B. Eddy of Tarrytown, New York, is an accumulating memorial list of 20 people I have known closely as models of kindness and generosity over the years. To get on the list a person must have passed on, and by all accounts, remained generous even in their final days. These are people who understood that happiness is not to be found just in the getting, but in the giving, and they taught by example. They had a certain happiness about them - a sort of gaiety that comes with a life well-lived and rightly inspired. One of the people on my list if Sir John Templeton (2012-2008), who lived 96 wonderful adventuresome year as a spiritual and economic pioneer.


May I give you two quotes from Sir John's writings that capture the synergistic qualities of character that were palpable to any of us who knew him - love, joy, and purposefulness. The first passage highlights the intimate association of love and joy: "Who are the happiest people you have ever met?
Let us write down the names of ten persons who continually bubble over with happiness, and we
will probably find that most are men and women who radiate love for everyone. They are happy
deep inside themselves because they are growing spiritually and fulfilling God's laws. Jesus
said, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul and with all
thy mind. This is the first great commandment.And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love
thy neighbor as thyself.' (The Humble Approach, pp. 98 - 99)" The secret to joy does not lie in the love of self alone, or in the love of God alone, or in the love of neighbor alone. It is the three together that constitute a triadic structure of flourishing. From this structure of love stems a radiant happiness so inwardly deep and abiding that Sir John generally preferred to speak of it as joy, for it is quite independent of circumstances in a way that mere happiness is not.

The second passage constitutes Sir John's clearest statement regarding his purpose in life:
"Agape love means feeling and expressing pure, unlimited love for every human being with no
exception. Developing such divine ability has been a goal for me almost all of my eighty-six
years on earth." (Agape, p. 1) In developing the spiritual dynamic of agape or unlimited love he found the secret to purpose as well as joy in his life. By "unlimited" he meant universal and equal-regarding, a love for everyone. In observing Sir John for some years, I believe that he strove to treat each and every person he encountered with a love manifest in thought, word and deed. There was for him no distinction to be made between "significant" and "insignificant" human beings, for we are all to be equally regarded, and we are all equally in need of unconditional love.

No one who had the privilege of knowing Sir John would be surprised by the above passages, or doubt their authenticity. He was a humble man who knew that no one ever fully arrives as some destination of perfect love, but he always affirmed that love is the best path to travel. It was his direction from adolescence until his last moments in life. He left the station early and rode on from rural Tennessee to every corner of the globe, a great investor intent on treating every person along the way with immense grace and kindness, and finally dedicating his considerable fortune to a vision of spiritual progress. Why? Because "developing such divine ability" is the one and only universal law of human flourishing for those who receive and for those who give. To bring the techniques of science to this law of love was to help free the world from false and destructive pursuits. It is said that love is in the details, and as I came to know him over the last fifteen years of his life, Sir John was a marvelous example for me and for innumerable others. He lived the life he sang about.

Wall Street could use a few leaders like Sir John these days, but where are they? I lament a recent study indicating that 85% of students in business graduate programs (MBA degrees) in the United States today espouse "Machiavellian values" (i.e., lying and deception to get ahead). What a contrast. No wonder people have lost some confidence in the system.

Here are four things to keep in mind. First, as Washington Irving, put it so well: "Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow back and soften and purify the heart." Second, love often does beget love, just as hate usually begets hate. Third, we should never count on reciprocity because this is sure to be frustrating and ultimately small-minded. Better to take joy when those upon whom our love is bestowed do not "pay it back" to us, but rather "pay it forward" to others as they move through life remembering our good example. And fourth, St. Paul linked "faith, hope, and love," and he proclaimed that "love never fails." Merely human love, even at its best, fails all the time. It is often unenduring, unwise, narrowly focused, and laced with mixed motives. So Paul wrote of agape love, a perfect Godly love in which we might in some mysterious way take part to degrees.

Do a little good this holiday season. The 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch (www.VolunteerMatch.org), surveyed 4,500 American adults. 41 percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. 68 percent of those who volunteered in the last year reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier. In addition,
•89% report that "volunteering has improved my sense of well-bring"
•73% agree that "volunteering lowered my stress levels"
•92% agree that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
•72% characterize themselves as "optimistic" compared to 60% of non-volunteers
•42% of volunteers report a "very good" sense of meaning in their lives, compared with 28% of non-volunteers
How wise it is to do what one can to contribute benevolently to others!

Some individuals on my The Book of Common Prayer list were well known and other lived quiet lives out of the limelight. Some were appreciated and some not. We might prefer to think that loving servants of goodness would, after a long and successful life, die peacefully in their beds and all people speak well of them at their funerals. But this is too simplistic. Everyone on my experienced an enduring joy as a by-product of their generosity. Thus the motto of the independent Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (www.unlimitedloveinstitute.com) remains as always, "In the giving of self lies the discovery of a deeper self."

I draw you attention to the Institute website because it is full of new items, including a list of research results that seem to converge on the simple truth that to be happy and healthy, to have opportunities and to flourish, love beats all the alternatives hands down.
(www.unlimitedloveinstitute.com/grant/index.html).

I am not being simple-minded in stating this fact. In general, people who live loving lives find life gratifying, meaningful, joyful, and hopeful. While they love others for their own sake, as a by-product they come to realize a deeper and more flourishing self. They will often find renewal and resilience in this gift love when life gets challenging, as it can and does. Usually, they will find soul partners or deep friends who share their concerns and commitments as they journey in the path of love. Thus community forms around love. Love is not to be relegated to the arid, dry, lonely portrait of human suffering. There is buoyancy in love. But love can sometimes be utterly unappreciated, unacknowledged, and even mocked. People who love others and who have done no wrong may find themselves under attack, rejected, disrespected, and even hated. They do not seek this, nor should they ever. Such would be pathological. But sometimes suffering finds them, and they accept it. They wish it were not so, and yet they believe that if they continue to love unconditionally they will find eventual surprising results, for their way of being in this world will leave its mark. Someone said that great visionary people have understood that doing the right thing will often cause some degree of misunderstanding and produce suffering. Other people expect goodness to be rewarded with trophies in one form or another. They sometimes lose faith and turn bitter when they encounter rejection and pain. But visionaries grow in faith during the desolate times. Other people perceive all pain as an evil waste. There is no greater visionary than the prophet who is responsible for the central chapters of Isaiah. This ancient seer saw that suffering could lead to healing and liberation. We would prefer to think that loving servants of goodness would, after a long and successful life, die peacefully in their beds and all people speak well of them at their funerals. But this is too simplistic. So while I am honored to be considered a leader at the interface of theology, ethics and positive psychology, I would not wish to be thought of as engaged in a naïve happiness myth. Yet as St. Paul wrote, "God loves a cheerful giver."

Recently I delivered a sermon in an African-American Baptist Church in Coram, New York. The subject was how, as a by-product, we generally benefit when we love our neighbor. Afterwards, a wonderful woman, an elder pastor who was full of vitality, said to me, "You know, that's how we African Americans have been getting through hard times for two centuries!"

At a recent address to investors and philanthropists on Wall Street, I quote Thoreau: "Goodness is the only investment that never fails."

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love as follows: The essence of love is to affectively affirm as well as to unselfishly delight in the well-being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf; unlimited love extends this love to all others without exception in an enduring and constant way. Widely considered the highest form of virtue, unlimited love is often deemed a Creative Presence underlying and integral to all of reality: participation in unlimited love constitutes the fullest experience of spirituality. Really, is there any better way to try to live our lives? Is there a better way to invest? 

Thanksgiving and the Holiday Season 2011

Responses welcome at Post@StephenGPost.com

 

 

 

Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., is Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics. more...

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