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Mindfulness in Everyday Life: Why Giving Makes Us So Happy

12/23/2013 03:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014
  • Donna Rockwell, PsyD Licensed clinical psychologist, leading mindfulness meditation teacher, specialist in celebrity mental health, and activist in contemporary humanistic psychology

Every day at one o'clock in the afternoon, a petite gray-haired woman pulls her silver Buick into the driveway of Common Ground Sanctuary, a home for adolescent runaways in Royal Oak, MI, where it stays until she leaves, late into the night. For the past 30 years, Barb Broesamle has overseen youths in crisis, who are living on the streets or in dysfunctional homes, transition to life at the shelter with a roof over their heads and food on their table. Through requirements of work, school, and therapy, young people develop skills that help them find their way in the world. "Every moment with a child," she once told me, "is a chance to plant a seed."

Barb gives a lot of herself. So much so that the line between where she ends and the world around her begins doesn't really exist. She is quick with words of encouragement and hope. At the same time, she is no one's fool and sets kids straight when they are less than truthful. Arms folded, fingering the beads around her neck, Barb is known for her steely gaze. Meanwhile, softly curling hair hugs her head, wire-rimmed glasses circle her wise eyes, and comfortable sweater-and-skirt sets comprise her modest wardrobe. She looks like everyone's favorite aunt.

People like Barb know what it means to give. They live it every day. But for the rest of us, what does giving really mean?

Short of working at a homeless shelter or having fortunes to donate, the opportunities for giving through simple acts of kindness and compassion are actually available to us every day, too. However small the act may seem, giving can make a mountain of difference in how richly we experience life and the contentment we feel.

Two well-known people who have demonstrated the power of giving are Bill and Melinda Gates. Stressing that "every life has equal value," the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made record-breaking philanthropic gifts, setting new benchmarks in giving not only by the size of its endowment, but also by the edict of its mission "to help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world." The Foundation has given away billions of dollars improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the world's poorest regions. Others like Warren E. Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Bono, Ted Turner and Richard Branson are similarly donating large percentages of their own fortunes to eradicate global suffering.

Giving to oneself by giving to another is one of the cornerstones of the positive psychology movement which studies character traits and virtues such as: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, and transcendence, and discerns their contribution to one's level of happiness. The term "transcendence" refers to going beyond immediate personal gratification in order to contribute to a greater good, embodying gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality, and appreciation.

The link between giving and happiness is not new. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that the way to achieve nirvana (ultimate happiness) is by "filling your mind with compassion." In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., emphasize that acts of altruistic giving lead to "a feeling of happiness, a calmer mind, and less depression." Giving, they suggest, is good medicine.

Eastern scholar Sakyong Mipham points out in his book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, that in order to experience the kind of happiness that lasts beyond the short-lived elation of a new car or a shopping spree, Westerners must learn to give up the "me" plan. "Just by thinking beyond 'me,' we're recycling," he says. "We're giving something back to the earth and to the world. Just by thinking, 'May she be happy,' rather than 'May I be happy,' we've begun to change the structure of our life, and, to a certain degree, the structure of the whole world... because what virtue produces is more virtue. And how we experience virtue is happiness."

Giving is not just a verb. At its essence, it is also a noun. More than something we do, giving is who we are in each moment of our lives, exemplified by the choices we make -- sharing a laugh with a neighbor; paying a compliment to the checkout person at the grocery store; passing a warm greeting to someone on the sidewalk; attending carefully to the story our child is telling us rather than chatting on the telephone; relinquishing the need in discussions with our spouse to always be right. These are the behaviors of giving that generate inner happiness.

For feelings of ultimate happiness, donate some time to a charitable organization, a nursing home, a homeless shelter, a hospital or a soup kitchen. Take your children so they learn the joy that giving brings. Do something special for someone in your life, making the fulfillment of another person's needs your top priority. Through the simplest of gestures we spread happiness all around, especially to ourselves.

Giving is the gift that keeps on giving. Barb Broesamle knows all about it. You can see its reflection in her smile.

A version of this blog was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.

Follow Dr. Rockwell on Facebook, and Twitter @drdonnarockwell, and at her website: donnarockwell.com.