Though he's now in college, when he was a toddler, our son's possessiveness with toys taught us a lot. Like: generosity does not always come easily, and not sharing is not so cute. His tight, unsharing grip on his Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers was only loosened with various versions of this lesson: "When you share, buddy, you won't lose a thing, but you may win a new friend."
Like children who want to hold on to their toys, I believe that many of us in the U.S. suffer from "affluenza," the disease of prosperity and consumerism. We live in one of the world's wealthiest nations, yet many Americans find themselves stressed out, overworked, in debt and unhappy. In our culture of getting, so many of us get caught in the trap of "never enough." There's never enough time, never enough money. We need a bigger house, a better car. We'd love to be more generous, but we're caught on that exhausting treadmill.
And yet, when we do practice generosity we ourselves reap the rewards, in addition to those toward whom we've been generous. Science has shown that the act of giving money to a cause you care about activates the "pleasure centers" in the brain. Numerous studies have proven a positive correlation between volunteering and lower levels of heart disease, depression, and other health risks. "Charitable work literally makes the heart grow stronger," wrote Forbes, reporting on one such study.
And, conversely, when we exhibit stingy behavior -- although we may not even be aware of it -- we experience shame, which makes our levels of cortisol, the "stress" hormone, rise. Increased cortisol can, over time, lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease and depression.
But despite our American affluenza, I believe that we humans are built for generosity. If a family member is in need, you wouldn't hesitate to help them. If your next door neighbor needs help shoveling after a heavy snowfall, you would help. People in your city are hungry, and you give to the local food bank. When we are generous with our time, generous with our talent, generous with our treasure, we benefit, our families benefit and our communities benefit. Doing so, we win new friends and broaden our definition of "our neighbor," thus creating what I call concentric circles of compassion.
You can start with practicing generosity toward yourself -- not by buying yourself a gift, but by cutting yourself a break. Do something good for yourself, like getting a full eight hours of sleep or taking a day off work. Then do something good for someone you live with -- maybe do a chore that is usually another family member's responsibility. See how it gives you energy, how it improves your relationships at home.
Then widen the circle. Do a favor for your next door neighbor, or make a donation to a local nonprofit that works in your community. Then think about what you can do to help your neighbors even further removed -- those people living in poverty overseas, communities that struggle to access clean water or put enough food on the table. My organization, Lutheran World Relief, is just one of many working to help these faraway neighbors work their own way out poverty, with programs like LWR Gifts, providing a person in need with a gift, like a goat that can help put them on the path to a better life.
It doesn't matter how much you give, and I think it's actually smart to start small. Test it out. Every generous action, every gift, makes an impact -- an impact on our own well-being as well as an impact on the world. That's why I'm so excited about the concept of Giving Tuesday -- a day when, collectively, we as a nation practice generosity, creating a culture of giving rather than a culture of getting.
On Giving Tuesday, I challenge you to lift hands of gratitude. We are unimaginably wealthy in innumerable ways. We are custodians of untapped potentials and unrecognized prosperity with nothing to lose, really. We can be ungrudging givers. And that not only feels really good, it will give the world a boost.
On Giving Tuesday, I challenge you to stop griping about what you don't have, don't hold in your hands and maybe shouldn't ever have. Give up grabbing for stuff you cannot afford -- stuff that doesn't deliver happiness, anyhow. Rather, I challenge you to cultivate generosity, to serve neighbors in need and treat others as sisters and brothers. As we do that, we just may win some new friends and learn how we all have nothing, really, to lose.
This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday - which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 - is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.
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