The Possibility of Giving


At the end of my last post, The Pursuit of Happiness, I said that Jesus counsel that it’s better to give than to receive inverts the standard Western understanding of that whole tricky business.

Like “money doesn’t buy happiness”, it’s one of those notions that floats around the thoughtmosphere (or noosphere as Teilhard de Chardin called it). While it’s given a certain regard, it’s acknowledged but not really embraced, something to be admired at arm’s length.

Of course, like any idea in this scientific era, we have to look to approach it as a theory. We have to weight it’s true, assess it’s soundness, see if it holds water. And of course, like most high level concepts, even if we discover some truth in it, we need to appreciate that it may not be the whole truth, not be the unified theory of everything in one tidy semantic package. One might need to apply a little nuance, play it with feeling.

That giving might beat receiving may strike some as an odd or eccentric notion at first glance. Considering humans to be biological creatures, sophisticated organisms, it’s fair to wonder why one organism should give a twit about the happiness of another organism. One paramecium would never gift it’s little morsel of noursishment to another, or donate it’s little warm spot to an ailing comrade.

Though evolution was also fueled by symbiosis and cooperation, Darwin’s principle of selection of the fittest remains the primary thrust. And while nurturing the young is something many creatures do, there are also those who will snack on their young and feed on their mates. The king lion won’t give up his prey to a lesser lion and the dominant ape will chase off its lessers from a tasty piece of fruit or a desirable mate.

But evolution conjured up a special kind of creature with humans. Our brains, our intelligence serve to differentiate us from our fellow creatures. One of the main theories on why human intelligence emerged is that it wasn’t primarily because it helped us make tools and solve problems of the physical world. Rather it is believed to have emerged because it enabled us to better solve the social problems of complex beings living together and therefore become more deeply a social species, a species able to work together towards a common flourishing.

The formation of humans, along with developing brains that would one day peek inside atoms, also instilled in us a repertoire of emotions which would bond us to other humans, emotions like sympathy, empathy, kindness, compassion, love and trust. These emotions birth humans whose selves are not exclusively individual units but are to some degree intertwined in a network of selves

Some thinkers think that in addition to the emotions that bind humans to each other, that humans also have an instinctive bond with the rest of life that Erich Fromm named biophilia, a concept that later became the subject of a book by biologist Edward O. Wilson, and a music album by Iceland Bjork.

Being human then, is more than just being an individual human creature, it fundamentally involves being tangled up in a greater project of being human together, composing a life orchestrated with an ensemble of humans.

Nowhere is this more clear than in various true cases of wild or feral children, children who grew up in the wild, raised by animals or who spent years of their childhood in solitary confinement. As shown in the book, “Savage Girls and Wild Children” by Michael Newton and in films like Werner Herzog’s, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Truffaut’s The Wild Child, children raised without language, without human nurturance and guidance, can survive, but seem to us to be less than fully human. As Newton says, “through the recognition of the wild child’s rawness, brutishness and bestialilty…we erect barriers against the recognition of kinship.”

Becoming human isn’t something you do on your own, it’s not an individual effort. To be human is to live within a human world. Human lives are shared lives. They are lives implicated in a shared fate, a fate that both plays a large part in one’s own pursuit of happiness and which one’s own efforts help determine. Since we need to be for each other, sharing is part of our nature, a sharing that was essential to the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Giving is an elaboration of sharing, it arises from an appreciation of the interconnected nature of life. Some evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists would have it that giving is strictly reciprocity, that it always assumes an equivalent return. And it’s surely true that much giving is based on reciprocity, a reciprocity that has played and continues to play a big part in gluing together the human.

But not all giving is calculated exchange. Humans present the possibility of true giving, giving for its own sake, without regard for return. Our inventory of emotions includes items like benevolence and charity. True giving, I think, springs from feelings of appreciation and gratitude. This wish to give comes not from wanting something back but from feeling glad for the blessings one has received from life.

Giving doesn’t have to be giving of a material thing. It can be the giving of time, attention, an open door, a smile. Giving isn’t less about the thing given than the act of giving. Buddhists encourage us to wish for the happiness of others. Giving expresses that wish by acting for the happiness of others, cherishing a self that isn’t one’s own.

In the world as it is now appears structured around happiness pursued by chasing after power, privilege and prestige. Giving is an antithetical method for acheiving happiness, a contrarian approach.

But increasingly, scientific analysis of happiness and positive psychology by people like Martin SeligmanSonja LyubomirskyStefan Klein, Daniel Gilbert and others, show clearly that money and ego aren’t the right places to look.

Living as taking suffers from the economics of declining marginal utility. Beyond the point of deprivation, each additional dollar grasped has less benefit. But giving has an unlimited upside. The world offers virtually endless possibilities to benefit.

But can giving really produce happiness? Or is it just something that sounds good, something one “should do”? The happiness of giving is a happiness to be found in the happiness of others. In that sense, it is a second order happiness. Since happiness is a feeling, an internal experience of the world, this would be a derived happiness. 

Since emotions are creations of the brain, they are strictly confined to one’s direct sensations (things like chocolate or hot stoves). They are essentially the brain commenting on what it is structured to feel is important. Emotions are the mind responding to one’s life in the world.

Since much of that life involves other humans, so do the emotions. Many emotions serve to connect us with others, though some serve to drive us apart. It makes sense, then, that we might find happiness through giving. I think that experientially we do enjoy giving, that it makes us feel good.

It’s outside the scope of this piece (as well as outside my own current scope) to explore in depth the ultimate truth of this idea. However, there have been recent scientific studies that that support it, including a study that giving to others improves our health, another study that giving support to a loved one also benefits the health of the giver, and a study that giving to charity or buying gifts for others makes us happier than buying things for ourselves.

Beyond the happiness actually inspired by the giving, there’s a secondary factor. We also are susceptible to sympathetic joy. A buddhist concept, sympathetic joy is the happiness we feel from seeing the happiness of others, like when we watch little children play. This just adds to the enjoyment we get from the giving itself.

I believe there’s one other thing that heightens the happiness of giving. In the act of giving, for at least one moment, we free ourselves from our own self-cherishing. Dalai Lamas excluded, most of us experience a persistent impulse to be concerned with our personal needs and wishes. In giving we feel liberated, if just for an instant, from the constriction of the ego, the struggle to worry about ourself.

Giving is a particularly human possibility. It presents the opportunity for being beyond self. Giving involves an organism transcending its own membrane and connecting back to its world. In giving the self expands, allows some of the world to seep inside.

The range of giving can vary greatly. The wish to give is typically limited to a narrow and specific range, those near and dear to us, and occaisional momentary impulses. But it is capable of extending outward to cover greater areas, often expanding outward to our communities and our nations. And a few arise among us who extend their giving out to the whole world, the Mother Teresa’s and Albert Schweitzer’s who illuminate our history.

The ultimate gift, of course, is the one that we are all given, the gift of life. Life is a gift that the universe gives to matter. The opportunity to breathe, to feed, to perpetuate itself. And being human is the greatest gift of all. This precious human life gives us the opportunity to feel a wealth of emotions, to communicate with each other, to develop a rich understanding of the world we live withing, to invoke the past and imagine the future, and to participate in the grand unfolding of humans in the universe. And in this unfolding we give back to the universe, seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, understanding it and articulating it. and by nurturing the world that is our home.


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