THE BLOG
10/13/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Faith's Paradox: Lose Your Soul to Find it

Here's one of the great paradoxes of the human race: People who have almost no material possessions -- the world's extreme poor -- can be among the wealthiest in life.

I've observed this over and over again in some of the poorest communities on Earth. I have met women and men living on just a dollar a day who share with me heartbreaking stories of hardship and loss and yet exude the most joyful and grateful spirit.

A woman who lost an arm and a leg in the Haiti earthquake brought me to her church in a refugee camp where she stood and raised her one arm praising Jesus. Another woman in Rwanda -- raped and mutilated -- told me how she forgave her torturers and loved the child conceived by violence.

How are stories like this possible? Some people think there is some nobility in poverty, but I doubt that. Someone who is poor is a person, like you and me, with all the virtues and vices we all possess. Instead, I think that experiencing hardship -- especially with the support of a community -- can teach us to put others' needs before our own. When we do, life and love are abundantly available. Perhaps that's why a common thread across many religions is, as Jesus expressed it, you must lose your soul in order to find it.

You don't have to move to the slums to experience this truth. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith just published his findings on generosity. Over and over again he found that people who give of their time, compassion, and money tend to be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. The title of the book explains it all: The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.

The results of his study are compelling.
  • People who give away 10 percent of their income are 10 percent more likely to say they are very happy and 5 percent less likely to say they are unhappy.
  • The more you volunteer, the happier you are: People who say they are very happy also tend to volunteer almost six hours per month. People who are neither happy nor unhappy volunteer less than three hours per month, while people who are very unhappy spend less than 0.6 hours per month volunteering.
  • People who volunteer report feeling better and enjoying better mental health than people who don't volunteer, even though they have the same number of doctor visits and hospitalizations.
  • People who give or volunteer are more interested in pursuing personal growth.

Despite these obvious personal benefits of giving away time and money, few Americans do much of either. About half of Americans give away no money at all and about three quarters do not offer any time as a volunteer. Less than 14 percent of Americans give away 2 percent or more of their income.

Interestingly, it is the poorest income group that is the most generous. Those who make less than $12,499 annually give away 2.2 percent of their income. The wealthiest, making more than $90,000, are half that generous. This has recently been confirmed in a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey that found that the richest Americans are giving less, while the poorest are giving more.

The truth is that most of us are unwilling to give of our time or money to help other people. By being stingy, we fail to help those who need our assistance and we fail to exercise the practices that help to keep us healthy and happy.

There is a reason why every great religion teaches its followers that only when we live for other people do we discover true meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life. Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last. (Matt 20:16) And he says, "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap." (Luke 6:38)

The truth is that we experience life to its fullest when we live for something bigger and more profound than ourselves. I discovered this when I left my corporate job to work for World Vision. I initially resisted giving up the house, the car, and all the perks I'd enjoyed as a corporate CEO. But I discovered a purpose to my life that was far more meaningful when I joined World Vision's effort to help solve the puzzle of poverty for the world's poor.

There's no need to change a job or move to Africa to live for a bigger purpose though. I believe each of us is called to something greater, whether that means volunteering at a soup kitchen, raising money for a cause, or reading to the blind. Given all the needs in our world, and in our own souls, there is so much we could do to make them both a better place.

Richard Stearns is president of World Vision, U.S. and author of The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.