As part of his new book ‘Enlightenment to go’, best-selling author David Michie explores why it’s good to give.

As part of his new book ‘Enlightenment to go’, best-selling author David Michie explores why it’s good to give.

Two and a half thousand years ago, Buddha outlined ‘six perfections’ providing the basis of happy and awakened living. One of these cornerstones was generosity. Why?

Giving makes you happy

Buddha’s main motivation was to give people tools to cultivate greater happiness. When people give, they usually feel good about themselves. This feeling isn’t self-centred, as it may be when enjoying a delicious meal or favourite wine – not that there’s anything wrong with that! The happiness is, instead, a more profound sense of well-being and contentment.

While many people have experienced this feeling, there is also evidential proof that giving increases happiness.

The scientific proof

Dr Michael Norton, assistant professor of business administration in the marketing unit at Harvard Business School, conducted a series of studies with his colleagues Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The results of their studies, published in a 2008 edition of Science magazine, showed that people are happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.

Their work included a national survey in which 632 American men and women were asked how much they earned annually and what they spend it on. Respondents were asked to rate their level of happiness. Findings showed a clear correlation between those who reported spending more on others and higher self-reported levels of happiness.

Separate exercises tracked the way that employees spent profit-sharing bonuses, and how students spent cash hand-outs. Again, people who spent the money on themselves experienced no increase in happiness, while those who spent on others – whether a small or large amount – reported increased happiness levels that were statistically significant.

“Instead of thinking about winning the lottery and making other large life changes,” observed Dr Norton, “our research suggests that encouraging people to do small things on a frequent basis might get them to be happier over time.”

Improved health and longevity

Other studies quoted in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt provide evidence that practising generosity gives people a sense of both purpose and wellbeing. Whether giving money, or practising generosity in other ways – like giving blood or volunteering for a nonprofit – we are happier when we give. This impact is greatest of all among older people, where there is evidence that volunteering helps improve health and even longevity.

The ethical basis of giving

Perhaps part of the reason giving feels good is because, at some level, people recognise that it’s the right thing to do. In his book ‘The life you can save’, philosopher Peter Singer delivers a tour de force about why there has never been a more urgent – or rewarding – basis for giving than right now.

He points out that the proportion of people unable to meet their basic physical needs is smaller than at any time in recent history, while the proportion of people with far more than they need is also unprecedented. More importantly; rich and poor are now linked in ways they never were before.

Right now, 1.4 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty – that is, on less than US$1.25 a day. Many people in the West spend more than this amount every day on quenching thirst with things like a soft drink or coffee, even though water is available from the tap at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Regular, meaningful giving habits

Taking action to redress this balance is the ethical basis for generosity. Whatever charitable organisation we choose to support, and however we can best support it, the important thing is to cultivate the habit of giving on a regular and meaningful basis.

To quote Peter Singer: “The problem is that we are living in the midst of an emergency in which 27,000 children die from avoidable causes every day. That’s more than 1,000 every hour. And millions of women are living with repairable fistulas, and millions of people are blind who could see again.”

“We can do something about these things. That crucial fact ought to affect the choices we make. To buy good stereo equipment in order to further my worthwhile goal, or life-enhancing experience, of listening to music, is to place more value on these enhancements to my life than on whether others live or die.”

“Can it be ethical to live that way? Doesn’t it make a mockery of any claim to believe in the equal value of human life?”

To give is to be connected

When people give, they connect and move towards a more transcendent sense of wholeness that encompasses the well-being of others. Breaking out of cocoons of self-absorption, people can experience a more connected, panoramic state imbued with benevolence which allows them a glimpse of their own true nature. This is why Buddha taught generosity first.