Buddhism tends to look at giving as the very foundation of a decent life. Not only does generosity ease up some of our calcified habits around wanting, but it’s also just plain fun. It brightens the mind and lightens the heart. It connects you with others. It boosts your self-worth. It’s all-around just about my favorite thing.
But let’s be honest: giving can actually be kind of hard. Sometimes I read stuff like this and I think, “Great, I’ll just go ahead and give more.” Then I end up running into all my stinginess, the tight little pockets of contraction, the I can’ts and maybe-not-right-nows—and then I feel bad about myself. Which is so obviously not the point.We can train the mind to give. How? Three simple steps. #generosity #giving Click To Tweet
So just to be clear: I’m not saying generosity is easy. And I’m not saying if you’re a little stingy, like I sometimes am, that you should become Mother Teresa overnight. But what I am saying is that we can train the mind to give. How? Three simple steps.
- Convince yourself.
- Try a generosity meditation.
- Start giving.
So the first step, convince yourself. Before you kick off any new, oh-so-healthy habit, whether it’s exercise or veganism or random acts of kindness, you’ll need to first put all (or at least most) of your doubts to rest. And one great way to TKO your doubts is by hitting them hard with science.
Here are just a few findings to start us off:
- Generous people are healthier.
- Generous people live longer.
- Generous people are generally happier.
- Your blood pressure actually drops when you give a gift.
- Giving reduces stress.
- Just a single act of generosity boosts your mood.
- Simply thinking about giving can really improve your day.
Pretty convincing, right? Who doesn’t want to live longer and healthier and happier with lower blood pressure and better moods?
Let’s drill down into one study done at the University of British Columbia, which features a bunch of undergrads who were split into two groups.
The first group was put through a battery of tests and then given twenty dollars. They were told to go out and spend the money any way they wanted—as long as they spent it on themselves.
The second group was put through that same battery of tests and also given twenty dollars. The difference? They were told to go out and spend the money any way they wanted—as long as they spent it on others.
Any guesses on what happened next?
As expected, the undergrads who were given money to spend on themselves came back pretty happy.
But the undergrads who had been directed to spend money on others came back mega-boosted. They saw significant gains in mood, optimism, social connectivity, and other measures. And they couldn’t stop telling the researchers about how excited they were to go back to their dorms and start handing out gifts to their friends.
So generosity can seriously boost your mood. Good to know, right? If you’re feeling down, buy a little something for someone else. Recent studies have confirmed that the amount you spend doesn’t matter—it truly is the thought that counts.
Okay, now that we’ve established that generosity really is good for you (you’re convinced, right?), how do we get ourselves to actually do it? This is where meditation comes in. It’s not enough to just believe something is good. We need to train the mind.
In a way, this is no different from training muscles in the body. This generosity meditation is like training the gift-giving muscles of the mind.
A SHORT MEDITATION
Let’s practice some generosity together. It’ll be fun. Obviously you can’t close your eyes while you’re reading. But you can let yourself drop into a meditative state by slowing down, pausing, maybe even shutting your eyes between sentences as you try this little exercise on for size.
Imagine a time when you gave something. Make it a time when you gave something genuine. Not just the obligatory bottle of wine when you went to somebody’s house or the birthday present that you secretly dug out of your “regift” box and then handed over to your unsuspecting friend who likely didn’t want the State Farm baseball cap, either.
No, imagine a time when you offered a gift that meant something—both to you and to the person you gave it to. Maybe not an expensive something. Maybe not a thing at all. Maybe you did some babysitting for some friends who really needed a date night. Maybe you helped your buddy study for a test. Or maybe you got your sweetie tickets to Bruno Mars.
Doesn’t matter what. Just as long as it’s meaningful.
Now imagine what it was like to pick out the gift. Some joy there, maybe. Thinking about what this other person would really want. Going to the trouble of getting it. Spending the money or spending the time.
And now think of this person receiving the gift. Assuming it’s one of those times when you hit the nail on the head—maybe their face lit up, or they actually jumped for joy. Perhaps hugs or high fives were exchanged.
Imagine giving a gift in the future. Again, make it something genuine. Something you’d really love to give. Skipping, for now, the obligatory Mother’s Day card or the housewarming knick-knack. Stay with something meaningful, something a friend or a loved one would really love to receive.
Again, this gift could be a thing. Or it could be a favor, a service, a meal, a kind word. There are so many different kinds of gifts. Just make sure it matters. And because this is in the future, it can also be imaginary, so you don’t have to limit yourself.
If your mom has always wanted to ride on a private jet, imagine getting her that ride. And then really get into imagining the smile on her face, the delight in her eyes, as she rises above the clouds with a glass of champagne in her hand and . . . you get the idea. Be specific. And really let your mind go for the details.
Give something. Right now. Don’t wait. It could be anything. No matter how small. But find some way to give something in this very moment.
That’s right. Stop reading. And . . . send somebody a text about how much you really appreciate them, or walk into the next room and hug your kids, or go online and one-click on a gag gift for a dear friend. Doesn’t matter what you do. Just give. And stay with the meditation, continuing to notice how it feels in your body and mind as you do all this.
Then come back and we’ll close out with a final step.
Track your response. Okay, you just remembered giving a gift, thought about giving a gift, and then actually gave a small gift.
Now, just for a moment, check in with the area around your chest and throat. How is your breathing? Did it speed up or slow down during this meditation? Do you feel more relaxed? Or maybe tighter? Is there some sense of emotional warmth? Or maybe a kind of numbness, even resistance?
Whatever comes alive for you is perfectly fine. Just use your mindfulness to track the response, take it as data, and maybe come back to the meditation a few times to see if things develop and change as you go. Ultimately, we’re looking to tap the inherent joy of giving. But it might take a while to step your way up into that.
GIVE IN SMALL WAYS
The real truth of the matter is that you give all the time. You probably don’t spend a lot of time paying close attention to the ways in which you give.
This is an important point. Because psychologists have long known that attention holds a kind of power.In terms of good habits, what we give attention to flourishes. What we ignore, withers. And the very opposite is true of bad habits—those things we wish we didn’t do, but still keep on doing. When we ignore them, they grow in the shadows, but when we face them with confidence and kindness, they can’t stand up to the light of awareness for long. This is mindfulness.
And this is the magnifying glass of concentrated awareness: the more we pay attention to the ways we are already generous, and note the physical sensations of how good it feels, the more that helpful habit will grow.The good news is, you can practice generosity everywhere you go. #importanceofgiving Click To Tweet
The good news is, you can practice generosity everywhere you go.
For example, I spend a lot of time in airports traveling from one retreat center to another. Airports are not always the most relaxing places for me. I come from a family of nervous travelers, and no matter how many times I go through a TSA checkpoint, there is always some part of me that is scared I left something behind, or that I will somehow miss my plane, or misplace my wallet, or whatever. By the time I get through security, I can sometimes feel addled, or rattled, or just plain irritable.
But I’ve discovered a special antidote. First, I find a Starbucks or a Jamba Juice or whatever. Then I wait in line. I say hi to the cashier. And instead of buying myself something, I buy a gift card for five or ten dollars and leave it at the register to pay for the next few customers’ drinks.
And then, just like that, I feel lighter, sweeter, happier. And I start to see the good again. I see all the ways others are being generous to each other all around the airport—fathers holding babies, mothers buying food for their kids, teenagers sharing earbuds, friends picking up the tab.
For me, that’s all it takes. I spend at least an hour or two smiling.
But don’t take my experience as proof. Try it out for yourself. Notice what happens when you practice generosity in real time. I admit, it might be a little awkward at first. A lot of habits feel awkward at first. That’s why we need to practice them until they become second nature.
Adapted from How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life by Craig Hase and Devon Hase © 2020 by Craig Hase and Devon Hase. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.