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Selfish selflessness: Why giving to others is as much about giving to ourselves

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew month of Adar and the holiday of Purim knows that an underlying character of these times is defined by happiness. From the earliest days of childhood, we are taught to sing “Mishenichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha — When Adar arrives, happiness increases.”

The challenge with this understanding is that happiness is not something which can be easily acquired in any traditional sense. Most won’t expect to wake up on the morning of the 1st of Adar and say “Today, I’m going to be happy!” While there are some who may have that ability, the reality of lives filled with even “normal” levels of stress, physical illness, and mental challenges is that it would be wrong to just to expect someone to be happy.

As with all aspects of Jewish life and tradition, there is of course a far deeper meaning to the concept of happiness during this time of year and by embracing that understanding it can help guide us in many parts of our lives.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides was cognizant of this challenge centuries ago when he taught that it is preferable that we invest more in gifts to the poor than we spend on the other Purim obligations of our own festive meal or food packages for our friends and acquaintances. The reason he writes is that “there is no greater or more glorious joy than to bring happiness to the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers.”

This is to say that our happiness is not something that is brought on by spending more money on ourselves. That happiness, call it materialistic, has a certain value in helping us feel better for the short term. But if we want to feel real joy then we are best spending money and time in service of others.

Maimonides’ ancient approach is also reflected in modern-day research. A 2008 Harvard Business School study found that giving money to someone else lifted participants happiness levels more than spending money on themselves. David Destano, a professor of social psychology at Northeastern University even calls this a “Win-Win-Win” situation whereby the giver and the recipient each benefit, but the positive feeling that emerges from that reaction leads both parties to feel good and thus extend that positive emotion to others — making the third “winner” society at large and creating a network of giving that will continue to grow even after we give.

The power of charity and volunteerism has also been proven to be an ideal source of positivity according to Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale and host of The Happiness Lab podcast. Her research has found that “people who self-report being happiest are focused on those in need — they donate more of their time and money to charity and engage in random acts of kindness.”

At Chai Lifeline, I am fortunate to witness this pure joy in giving and doing for others every day from our thousands of volunteers — be it the drivers who provide families with meals or transportation to and from the hospital for treatments, Big Brothers and Big Sisters who dedicate themselves to children with severe illnesses, and even those in our community who run marathons or ride in charity races to raise funds for those in need.

The act of giving of oneself is truly life changing and, like happiness, can be exponential. Ninety percent of counselors and staff at Camp Simcha (meaning joy), our summer program for medically fragile children, reported that their experience made them more likely to volunteer in their own communities — growing that network of good, proving that third “win.”

The lessons we learn from the commandments of Purim is that the way we can bring about our own greater joy is to open our hearts to others. Indeed, the act of giving and helping can change another’s world for the better. Yet at the very same time it can change ours as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Simcha Scholar is the Chief Executive Officer of Chai Lifeline, a leading international children's health support network.
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