Think back through all the years of your life, and ask yourself, “How much did I give to others?”
The answer to that question may not be as simple as you think: The pennies you leave at the gas station counter for someone who might be short of change. A beloved drawing you poured your soul into as a child, then gifted to a favorite teacher. A birthday card you signed and passed on to a colleague.
Each of these simple acts is a gift.
Giving is a lifelong practice that we engage in from the time we can understand that there are others in the world besides ourselves. As children, we give affection to our parents to show our love for them. When a friend falls on the playground, we help them get up. When they cry from the pain, we offer comfort.
Once we reach adolescence, these basic lessons and instincts of giving have matured. For the first time, we realize that we can make a difference for so many others by doing simple things, like collecting food, volunteering time or parting with a prom dress we’ll never again wear. As we give of our time and possessions, we learn more about ourselves and experience the unique happiness that comes from reaching out to others.
Throughout adulthood, giving takes on new purpose. Causes that touch our hearts or lives incite us to give not only of our time and resources, but of our expertise, connections and education. We allocate portions of our income to give to the church. We pick up a bag of kibble at the grocery store to drop in the local animal shelter box on our way out. We participate in school fundraisers, volunteer to coach teams and serve on PTA committees.
Through giving, we become leaders in our families and communities. As retirement comes, we look forward to a well-deserved break from a job’s daily grind. Yet, we turn invariably to giving when our days punching a clock are done. Company-sponsored retiree volunteer programs are on the rise nationwide as a result of demand among Boomers. Tax breaks for planned giving donations and IRA allocations offer retirees significant incentives to share. Time finally becomes a resource that can be given in abundance to schools, boards and community organizations.
Throughout our lifetime, every act of giving we complete has a profound impact on others. Some we can see immediately – like the smile of the person whose day you brightened with a kind word.
The impact of other gifts we make may be more subtle. The $25 you contribute to a fundraising campaign that will create a place for after-school programs will be joined with others’ donations to the project. You may never meet the child who may never have graduated high school without the support of those programs – but you still changed his life.
Recent research indicates that giving to others is a predictor of happiness. Perhaps that’s why giving comes second nature to us. In the end, we all want to be happy.