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“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
Some might say that giving unconditionally is the path of true abundance. Stepping beyond our self-interest and thinking of others is a gift in and of itself, especially for those in recovery. It is not only scientifically proven to make us happy, but it is also recommended by some of the world’s greatest leaders, spiritual and religious figures, and psychologists.
I spoke to recovery scientist, researcher, and therapist Austin Brown about the benefits of giving unconditionally for people in recovery. By way of background, he explains, “The research on altruism is mixed. Some would say evolutionary biology dictates that giving without receiving was a means of retaining group membership. To be expelled by not contributing meant certain death. Others would say our motives for altruism is more pure, though not without benefit.” Brown continues, “I think both miss the mark. I believe that the act of altruism (agape love) is about stepping beyond the boundaries of tangible self-interest.”
I think Brown has a really valid point. We spend so much of our lives on self-reflection, whether that’s in therapy, mutual-aid meetings, with our sponsors, mentors, or coaches, talking with our peers, or through journaling about our thoughts and feelings. Stepping beyond the realm of ourselves is an opportunity to give back to those who are still suffering.
Giving has the ability to assist the healing process Brown explains, “The healing power of this is that giving places contextual markers to our experiences. For example, I may be suffering from stress, so I stop and buy a gift for someone out of the blue who just lost a parent or loved one. This act sets my stress squarely in juxtaposition to the pain and hurt of another. And the act of giving that gift conveys to the other a message that says, ‘despite my own affairs, I recognize your pain.’ In doing so, my pain is contextual to their pain, and an azimuth is shot between my pain and theirs.”
Having perspective in recovery is crucial. Just this week I was feeling sorry for myself because a crown displaced in my mouth. I suffer with severe dental anxiety that can exacerbate my complex PTSD and dysregulate my body. Within 30 minutes I went from a place of relaxation to crying for an hour. When I came home, I awoke to my heightened reaction as I rode the elevator with a person in a wheelchair who has cerebral palsy. Asking me how I was, I moaned about my tooth. He told me that he, too, needed a new crown. I quickly realized how much more fortunate I was in this situation — at least I was able-bodied and could cycle to the dentist and express my needs clearly. He was less fortunate, but he wasn’t moaning and instead was empathizing with me.
I was able to see how lucky I was being able to access the funds to pay for dentistry in America, which not everyone can. These realizations shifted my mindset so that I was able to think less about my challenges and more of others. Since then, I have hosted a recovery social event, and I’ve thanked the staff in my building by giving them cakes for Halloween.
In a society that is set on acquiring things — money, prestige, material possessions, relationships — it is a welcome change to let go of a need to be highly regarded and have everything we want, and instead focus on serving others.
Brown explains that for people in recovery that is crucial. “In recovery, we see altruism as a verb. We seek to give away the small treasures we find, first because they were freely given to us, and second, because in doing so we place ourselves squarely in relations to others, we see their needs as part of our own experience, and we hand off to them the things we have used that helped us.”
“This reverses the obsessions with ourselves, and our own needs, by contextualizing ourselves as a fellow traveler, rather than a lone sufferer. ‘I understand you pain, however briefly, as my own, and vice versa,’” he says.
There is nothing more powerful for me than someone showing me kindness, compassion, and empathy. Knowing that I am not on my own has been fundamental to my recovery. Without it, I would feel lost. I’m fortunate to have been given the time and hearts of many souls in recovery who have listened intently to my woes and supported me.
Brown enthuses, “For that small moment of giving, we are the same. I personally believe it is one of the most transcendental experiences humans can have.”
As Brown alluded to in his point about altruism relating to agape love — used by early Christians to refer to self-sacrificing love — the act of giving is supported by many religious and spiritual leaders. In Buddhism, the Dalai Lama notes that a person’s happiness is not derived from the material, it is dependent upon the deep, genuine concern for the happiness of others. Mahatma Ghandi has said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” And, Dr. Martin Luther King noted in one of his speeches, “recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
King continues, “by giving that definition of greatness, it means everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…you only need a heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Whether motivated by spiritual or religious leaders or not, there is research to support the benefits of giving. Science has shown that the act of giving can actually make you happier. A study by Harvard Business school found that regardless of one’s income, those who spent money on others were far happier than those who spent money on themselves.
Whether you are giving to those in recovery or not, what we give can be wide-ranging and it doesn’t have to cost us money if we don’t have it. Giving can include volunteering our time in positions of service in mutual-aid meetings, or local non-profits; giving care items to people who don’t have homes (socks, toothbrush, female hygiene products, blankets, sleeping bags); donating old clothes that you no longer wear; giving gifts to people for their birthday, or as a means of thanking them; and adopting a dog from a local rescue shelter. Another great idea is, instead of buying Christmas gifts, consider donating to a global non-profit campaign. There are some wonderful options such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, Compassion International, World Wildlife Fund’s Wildlife Adoption program, Charity Water, Human Rights Campaign, the American Cancer Society.
As Thanksgiving approaches, why not take a moment to stop focusing inward and instead focus on giving to others. You won’t regret it.
Olivia Pennelle is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery.