It’s better to give than to receive, the old cliché tells us, but why is this true? Is this some sort of Puritanical message designed to purge us of the sin of selfishness? Or could this old saying hold the secret to something more?
Giving does more than just make us better people, says author and philanthropy advisor Jenny Santi. The act of giving, Santi says, holds a transformative power—it’s “the most satisfying thing you’ll ever do.” And in her new book The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Transformative Power of Giving (Tarcher Books; October 27, 2015), she gives us a look at all the ways that giving can change our lives.
Santi has spent her career helping multi-millionaires and billionaires plan how best to use their resources for charitable purposes. In each of her meetings, though, she noticed similar reactions from her clients. “In those meetings set in skyscraper penthouses, five-star hotels lobbies and wood-paneled offices, my clients told me how their own acts of giving are transforming their lives and bringing them fulfillment in a way that is different from—and sometimes greater than—what they get from material wealth,” she writes. “I have seen many of them cry, but only happy tears.”
And it’s not just the incredibly wealthy who have this deeply personal reaction to giving of themselves. Santi also describes an episode from her own past, during a particularly difficult time in her 20s. “On one particularly miserable day . . . I decided to do something good for the world,” she writes. “Being an animal lover, I volunteered for a day at Noah’s Ark Natural Animal Sanctuary, a haven for 700 dogs, 300 cats, and dozens of reptiles, horses, rabbits, and other creatures who have been abandoned by their owners.
“What the animals got from me was a few morsels of food and perhaps some affection,” she writes. “But what I got from them was a deep sense of hope, meaning and strength greater than what I thought possible.”
Santi doesn’t rely just on anecdotal evidence to advocate for the transformative power of giving. “Modern science sheds new light on this phenomenon,” she writes. She points to a report that “brought forward the concept of the ‘helper’s high,’ resulting from studies that show that groups who had helped through time and/or money experience a ‘euphoria’ similar to that of those who had completed a physical challenge such as a race.” Other studies have shown that giving of oneself activates the same brain regions that are activated by cocaine usage. “I am not suggesting that drug use take the place of donations,” Santi writes, “but it seems that both activate the ventral striatum region, the pleasure part of the brain.”
And this pleasure can lead to a better life, according to Santi. “I believe that givers start giving because they are moved by a cause, but they endure because giving brings them happiness and fulfillment,” she writes.
While researching the book, Santi found that giving indeed provides a deeper meaning to one’s life. Giving, Santi tells the reader, is “the most satisfying thing you’ll ever do. [It’s] the source of true happiness; the meaning of life. The source of the greatest emotional and psychological return. The best way to recover from the worst tragedies, even from the grief of losing a loved one.”
Giving is “what liberates the soul,” she writes. “What brings families closer together. What combats the blues. What fills the gap. What gives a feeling of security. What gives a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. What can heal. What allows us to experience a deep connection with others. What gives inner peace. What brings great meaning, fulfillment and happiness.”
Through her book, Santi hopes that readers will “look at [their] own time, energy and resources in a new light and experience in a whole new way the transformative power of giving.” It’s a lesson that she says is summed up in the words of an old Chinese proverb:
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”