8 Gifts of Giving Back

In light of the recent and senseless tragedy in Las Vegas at the Route 91 concert, we must consider why giving back is so important. The greatest gift being an entrepreneur provides us, is the ability and resources to help. There is nothing more important than coming together as a Human Race to help those who have lost their lives unfairly, or are coming away from a senseless act of violence with life-altering injuries leaving families without the sufficient funding to treat the seriousness of the injuries. Whether the charity we support stems from a senseless act of violence, or from the simple desire to contribute to a cause which pulls at our heartstrings, what matters is we do what we can to help.

1. Have an impact

Most of us crave to feel our lives hold more meaning and value than only living in the grind of wake up, work, sleep, repeat. Deep within, we each desire to experience more from life. When we first undertake the entrepreneurial journey, we often need to be frugal so as to have enough financing to give our dream a shot at becoming a reality. This is understandable, and yet it is still possible to volunteer and to give what we can whenever wherever we can. Many entrepreneurs promote the idea of tithing as part of their financial structure. Tithing is a physical manifestation of our goodness and love, whether that be time or money. We must ask ourselves, in what ways can sharing our goodness or love ever be wrong? It’s not possible. When we tithe we become emotionally wealthy beyond our wildest dreams because it feels wonderful to help others.

2. Build community resilience

Resilience is developed both on an individual and community level. When we donate or volunteer to a person or community, we directly contribute to making individuals and entire communities stronger and hardier. Donating and volunteering brings people together under a single cause, where a community of like-minded people rally to help a community or person in need. It is incredibly bonding to share in offering ourselves to those in need with the love, hope and support necessary for all involved to experience that there is good in this world. From cleaning up streets, building schools, to reading to kids at the local library, or helping families with unforeseen medical or funeral expenses, we can enhance our own lives in helping to improve the lives of others. A community infused with strong and charitable people grow to become communities of hope, possibility, increased , opportunity and new life.

3. New connections

If we feel alone or lonely in our lives, one the best ways to get out of our negative focus is to get out of our own way and turn our focus towards being productive in helping others. Volunteering gets us out of the house, out of our funk and around other amazing people who are inspired to make this world a better place. Getting out helps to broaden our horizons. It places us in social situations where we can make new connections and friends. It also provides us with opportunities of further involvement in whatever cause we are supporting. When we get out of our own way, we put ourselves in contact with similar others who place people over profit. When we feel we have purpose, life isn’t so lonely anymore.

4. Improve your overall health

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNEI) is the study of the interaction between our psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems. How we think and feel has a direct and real impact upon our own health and longevity. Volunteering and/or donating to important causes has proven to show increases in our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. When we contribute, we take the focus off of our own lives and place our efforts towards bettering the lives of others. This type of involvement fills us with love, and love is the answer to a healing of any kind.

5. Leadership

Most great efforts call for great leaderhip. If we see there is a place and a means to give back, it is an opportunity for each of us to take a leadership role. Can this be intimidating? Yes, it can, but why not get outside our comfort zones? At the very least we will learn a lot about what it takes to organize efficiently, to work with others and to turn an idea into a crusade. Do not expect perfection. Ask for help, passion and donations. The intention behind what we do, and the subsequent emotions that drive us, are what count to those we are trying to help. At the end of the day, no matter how we may fumble in our efforts, we will undoubtedly experience the fruits of our labor when we see the happy faces of the people we have served. Just knowing we did our best to give to another is what life is all about.

6. Share proficiencies

We each have something wonderful to offer this world. We each have strengths that can be utilized for the benefit of others. If we aren’t putting our talents, our hearts and minds to their best use each day, donating and volunteering are great places to start. If we are already contributing to a cause, we will know there is always more that can be done to help. We must get out into this world and share our skills and our hearts in whatever ways we can. Many of us will be surprised when contributing from our strengths that it only serves to further sharpen these very strengths, growing us as entrepreneurs. Our active participation in any meaningful endeavor makes us wiser, stronger, and more humble as human beings.

7. Because it feels good

Gratitude, giving new life and bearing witness to seeing new hope in the eyes of another is what makes serving others such a moving and life-altering experience. Never do our hearts feel fuller than when we are selflessly offering ourselves to a cause or person in need of support. Not only does it feel good to see that what we give is appreciated and well-received, but the fact that we have the power to inspire genuine hope in others makes us even more hopeful and humble in our own lives. Giving back fills us with the emotions we need and crave to experience as human beings. Contributing has the natural side effect of reaffirming our own beliefs in the goodness of self and others.

8. Give authentically

We must be inspired to contribute from empathy. We are most drawn to contribute where we would hope for others to contribute to us if the shoe was on the other foot. When people contribute to make themselves seem like a hero with no mention of a cause, a link, a website, phone number, or go-fund-me account, they are essentially using a tragedy or a cause to publicly feed their own self-adoration. People experience this as repulsive rather than charitable. It is appropriate to share what causes we are involved in when we are doing so with the hope and intention for others to follow suit or contribute in some way. The more quietly and heartfelt we give of ourselves, the more meaningful an impact we have.

The Science Of Giving Back

Most philosophies and religions, not to mention common sense, include a strong belief in giving back to the world. Not only does it have the obvious benefit of helping others, but it’s apparently one of the most therapeutic things we can do for ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Even MassMutual’s new ad campaign proclaims, “Our happiness is gained through others.” There’s definitely something to all of this. A new study from Northwestern, for example, finds that people who have a purpose in life have an unwitting benefit: They sleep better at night. But lots of previous research has confirmed that having a purpose outside yourself is good not only for your mental health, it’s also good for your physical health, longevity and even your genes.

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Here’s a bit about the new study. The team asked older people to fill out questionnaires that got at their level of purpose and meaning in life—for instance, they rated sentiments like “I feel good when I think of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.” They were also asked about their sleep quality, and sleep-related health problems. It turned out that those with meaning in life slept a lot better at night: They were 63% less likely to report sleep apnea, 52% less likely to have restless leg syndrome, and had moderately better sleep quality overall.

“Helping people cultivate a purpose in life could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia,” said senior author Jason Ong in a news release. “Purpose in life is something that can be cultivated and enhanced through mindfulness therapies.”

Or it can be cultivated simply by thinking about what’s important to you—what problem you’d like to be a small part of helping solve, or what volunteer opportunities are available to you.

But this is just one of many studies that have explored how meaning in life affects us, both physically and mentally. A study last year found that having purpose in life was linked to some measurable cognitive benefits in people who were in their 30s up through their 80s. The participants rated how much they agreed with statements such as “I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” They also took tests of memory, executive function and cognitive function. Those with a greater sense of purpose, no matter what age or education level, scored better on these measures than people with less purpose.

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The year before, the same group had found that having a purpose in life served much younger people well, too. The team measured teens’ senses of purpose in life by having them rate how much they agree or disagree with phrases like “My plans for the future match with my true interests and values.” When the team correlated this measure to different outcomes, they found that purpose in life predicted greater positive self-image, less delinquency and better transitioning into adulthood. And interestingly, this was all unrelated to the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). This suggests that the benefits of having a purpose in life run across personality types, which is a pretty powerful effect.

Having a purpose in life is also linked to having a longer life, according to a large study in The Lancet a few years ago. Different measures of well-being were studied, but of interest was eudemonic well-being, which is the kind that comes from having purpose and meaning in life (vs. hedonic, which comes more from fun experiences—more on this below). Here, it was assessed by asking questions about a person’s sense of autonomy, control, purpose in life and self-realization. The team divided the participants into quartiles based on their eudemonic well-being score and correlated this with mortality over the next eight and a half years. Of the people in the lowest quartile, 29% died, versus 17.5% of those in the second quartile, 13.4% in the third quartile, and 9.3% in the highest quartile. Another way of looking at this is that people with the greatest sense of purpose had a 58% reduced risk of death, compared to people with the least. After the team adjusted for things like wealth, smoking and physical activity, the risk reduction fell to 30%, but this is still a pretty substantial effect.

Another study found that having a purpose in life is linked to beneficial changes in gene expression. This team looked at both eudemonic happiness and hedonic happiness, which again is more the feel-good type—the kind you might feel from going to a fancy restaurant or making a fun purchase. They correlated these two types of well-being with genetic changes, and found marked differences: Eudemonic happiness was linked to lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and higher levels of antibody and antiviral genes. Hedonic happiness was linked to the opposite pattern.

“What this study tells us,” said UCLA researcher Steven Cole in a statement, “is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion. Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”

Why might having a life purpose lead to all these health benefits? For one, it takes the focus off ourselves, which seems to be health-giving in more ways than one. Much of our mental anguish, stress and depression is linked to rumination and worry-based, self-referential thoughts. Transferring your focus from yourself to another might work to quiet worry and distress about one’s own plight, much in the same way that meditation is known to quiet activity in the “me-centers” of the brain (it’s also linked to better brain function, less depression and improved immune function). But more work will be needed to suss out all the mechanisms behind the connection between life purpose and health.

So finding a purpose might be a smart move—or, if you can’t figure that out yet, do a random good deed for a person or a cause, and see how it makes you feel. Ancient wisdom and modern science seem to agree: Being part of something larger might be one of the best things we can do, both for others and ourselves.

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