One of my mother’s favourite “motivational” sayings – and she had dozens! – was “Think of all those starving children in Africa.” It popped out of her mouth if we didn’t eat our dinner quickly, if we didn’t appreciate everything she cooked, if we complained about too little food, if we compared what one of us children had with what another had.
My mother also was the ultimate altruistic Canadian. Regardless of how poor we were (and we did our best to be the poorest in our town), she knew of others less fortunate, finding ways to give a little of herself, or what little tangible assets she had to others. Her standard is the standard for which I aim, but too often miss. Yet, she defied the results of recent research, which claims that people are happier when they give to others. Mom was far from a happy person.
Mom lived by two rules: It is better to give than receive, and Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, she loved giving, and hated having people give to her. “I’m no charity case” was one of her mantras.
A study out of the University of British Columbia, though, reinforces my optimistic view of the world. It declares that children are happier giving than receiving. It is a result that is consistent with the teachings of most major religions, including Judaism , which declares, “So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof”). The Qu’ran states, “The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things). Rivalry in worldly increase distracteth you. Abundance diverts you.” The Bible says, , “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” All of these religions hold that we should be generous, and think of others.
An interesting corollary of the University of BC research is that the kids tested were happier when they gave away their own valued possessions, as compared to giving away something that the researchers had provided to them with the specific purpose of giving away.
This small study has sizeable implications for the rest of us. The idea that we can improve our own happiness by making others happy first suggests that a good therapy for depression is to look to helping others, and getting involved. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Canadians consistently are ranked as happier than most people in the world, while also being one of the most generous people and the most involved in volunteerism. Giving, if not a cure for sadness, certainly is related to not being sad.
Many of the studies conducted on the topics of depression, happiness, satisfaction and so on show strong relationships between thinking of others and personal wellbeing. However, a relationship between the two does not mean one causes or resolves the other. For instance, one recent study found that happier people were healthier.
Does that men that we simply need to smile and be happy, and everything will be fine? No. Indeed, it may be that we are happier because we have health, not the other way around. The former seems logical. Yet, returning to the example that my mother set, if we actually do increase happiness by giving, I certainly am glad she gave a lot. The consequences of her giving less could have been intolerable!