November 26, 2010

“You Only Have What You Give”

For millions of Americans, today is the official beginning of the holiday shopping season, a frenzied month of searching for the “perfect gifts” for loved ones, friends, colleagues and others. During the holiday season, the notion of giving is largely equated with exchanges of material goods. But, of course, giving means so much more.

How different would the holiday season be if millions of Americans stopped the manic consumerism every so often to give generously of their time as volunteers, or simply decided to “pay it forward?

Sure, there are studies out there showing that people who volunteer their time regularly often report better physical and mental health than non-volunteers (who had no more health problems than the volunteers). The positive psychology researchers found that doing daily or weekly acts of kindness was associated with improved life satisfaction. Volunteering could even boost your levels of “happy hormones” like dopamine. “So what?” you may say.

Maybe you are already participating in Buy Nothing Day and you are just plum happy doing nothing. We need days of doing nothing as well as days of giving freely. I’m not talking about the kind of giving that builds up our egos with self-importance, but rather the kind of giving that flows freely without any thought of getting recognition in return.

Generosity is a paramita, or virtue, in Buddhism. It is thought to lessen the grip of afflictions such as greed and stinginess. By being generous with our time and energy, we can change the lenses through which our egos see the world. It is worthwhile to make the effort.

You always have something to give.

Nine years ago, I had arranged to sing holiday songs to patients in a DC-area hospital one week before Christmas. As luck would have it, I ended up being a patient in that same hospital. I experienced a severe flare of inflammatory bowel disease and the doctors said I could eat or drink nothing whatsoever for one week. I was debilitated but I decided to do the volunteer project with the help of some friends. I let the act of giving change me and my perceptions. I was no longer a helpless sick person receiving care, I was a volunteer helping to enliven a sterile, cold hospital with music and cheer. I was also able to reach outside of my “me-bubble” at a time when it was practically suffocating me.

There are actually many gifts in giving, far more than are exchanged through commercial presents during the holiday season. What gifts might you find by contributing to a volunteer project or paying it forward?


Alternative Gifts International

Charity Guide

Charity Shopping Portals

Help Others – Kindness Ideas

MLK Day of Service

Patient Corps

Pay it Forward Day April 28

Pay it Forward Day December 1

Volunteer Match

Volunteers of America

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

* The quote in the title is from the author Isabel Allende.

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