Is Giving the Missing Ingredient in Wellbeing?

Giving to others might be the most overlooked facet of personal wellbeing

Cassandra Treadwell (right) of charity So They Can. Picture / Supplied

We all know the cornerstones of wellbeing: take the stairs, catch more z’s, put down the cronut. But if there’s one feelgood ingredient that rarely gets its due, it’s giving. Perhaps that’s because it’s less likely (though not impossible) to be commoditised.

Maybe, in the age of the selfie, the incessant celebration of the “self-made millionaire”, our addiction to the “self”-phone, it seems fusty or out of step to try to improve the lives of others. More likely it’s that acknowledging there are benefits for ourselves when doing a good deed suggests it is a selfish act.

“Everyone thinks philanthropy is something you do without getting anything in return,” says Cassandra Treadwell, the Kiwi founder of Australasian charity So They Can. “They think of altruism as just doing something for someone else which is just fallacious. We need to recognise that donating or helping makes us feel good and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The former lawyer is on a mission to change the way we think about giving, insisting charity is only sustainable if we approach it as an exchange. In eight years, motivated by her contact with impoverished communities in Kenya and Tanzania where she saw children living in rubbish dumps, competing with vultures and pigs for food, Cassandra has helped to set up a children’s home, schools, clinics, training facilities and micro-businesses.

Two years ago she brokered a deal with Trilogy cosmetics, whereby Tanzanian villagers harvest sunflowers for oil, which is then used by Trilogy to make fragrances; $2 from each purchase goes directly to the women who farm the flowers. Each year she fundraises $3 million to keep the work afloat. She also makes two annual trips to East Africa, sacrificing time with her own family, husband Phil and her four children.

It’s worth it, she says, not just for the difference she’s helping to make, but for the emotional riches she has gained. She once took her eldest daughter into the Nairobi dump to show her the realities of life there. When her daughter became upset by what she saw, the locals didn’t hesitate to comfort her, a poignant reminder that we can only be truly happy when everyone in the group is happy, even if the one who is unhappy is the most well-off.

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She also recalls a young man with gangrene who came to one of the camps. Cassandra sent him to the doctor, who then amputated his leg from the hip.

“Three weeks later his family invited me in for tea and thanked me for saving his life. In my world, I’d be so gutted. But they have such an appreciation for what they’ve got. They don’t complain about what they don’t have.”
Giving on this scale hasn’t been easy. The responsibility and financial strain weighed on her in the early days, and at one point, she considered walking away.

“But I realised all that I’d lose if I wasn’t connected to these people, the grounding they give me. All that stuff I worry about at home, none of that matters, there’s a real sense of freedom. The people understand what’s important in life, and I bring this perspective back to my children.

They’ve taught me not to sweat the small stuff, the importance of having a connection to the community. It’s been enormously valuable and rewarding. I couldn’t walk away, and it was that recognition: I was receiving an awful lot more than I was giving. It was completely nourishing me.”

In his book The Gift, French sociologist Marcel Mauss argued that gifts are never “free”, writing, “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”

Mauss studied tribes who exchanged lavish gifts as a means of forging alliances and solidying relationships, a practice that continues today whenever we give, says Dr Steve Matthewman, the head of the School of Sociology at the University of Auckland.

“It’s interesting because we often think we’re doing something to be kind and selfless and out of generosity but there’s a sense in which giving is selfish in its own way and strategic. We only give to those who give back.”

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The cynic might refer to this as an ulterior motive, believing so-called philanthropic corporates only give as a PR exercise, or to score tangible benefits such as naming rights or tax breaks. But the recent rise in local initiatives that spread the love suggests reciprocal giving is the way forward.

The huge popularity of Eat My Lunch — whereby you can buy lunch for yourself, knowing another is sent to a Kiwi kid in need — is one such example. Similarly, after enjoying a meal at Merge Cafe on Karangahape Rd, you can buy lunch for a homeless person for as little as $4; every dollar spent goes towards housing homeless people.

Dr Matthewman points to the way in which our neoliberalist society — with its huge gulf between rich and poor — is driven by greed, an ideology that jars with our fundamental nature. We see this nature in high-definition when crisis hits. Often it’s not the emergency services who are first on the scene but people willing to risk their lives to help complete strangers.

“We can be too cynical about our differences and otherness, but when the going gets tough we see a common humanity, empathy and care. We’re social beings, and we don’t like idea of others suffering or hurting.”

Just as scientists have learnt that giving releases oxytocin and endorphins in the brain, we know from experience that giving makes us feel good. Yet not everyone can afford to donate to charity or spend weeks volunteering in third world countries.

In these times of austerity, sky-rocketing house prices and rising unemployment, the thought of giving can be overwhelming. Many of us, perhaps more than ever, already feel burdened by the amount of energy given to work, family and friends. Others simply don’t know where to start.

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“I’m constantly in the company of people who feel extremely overwhelmed about world issues. ‘What is it I can do?’ There’s a sense of hopelessness,” says Tayyaba Khan, the co-ordinator of City Givers, a programme due to launch in Auckland next month. The initiative is run by Splice, the social organisation and subsidiary of Lifewise that was behind the recent Random Acts of Kindness Day.

The new programme aims to tackle the issue of isolation in our city by inspiring giving, particularly among young professionals, and it has a team who regularly connect with Aucklanders from corporate to street level. This is no hippie love-in where you hug strangers at the traffic lights. Based on a similar programme in London, City Givers aims to create an online platform that collates group or individuals’ offers big and small, and matches them to those in need.

Kate, who may wish to offer her language skills, could be connected with Joe, an international student. They might catch up for coffee every now and then so he can practise his English. Sam, who is willing to offer his sparkling repartee and listening skills, could be paired with an elderly person who is feeling lonely.

“It’s about bringing it down to the minute level,” says Tayyaba. “Any little thing you can do is contributing to a better world. It’s not just constantly focused on the big world issues but our local neighbourhood, which is the best way to start. That gives people a real sense of groundedness. Just knowing that you’re giving back and helping someone makes a huge difference. [Givers] will feel inspired, confident, and better about their contribution.”

Tayyaba should know. A paid employee at Splice and the CEO of ChangeMakers Refugee Forum, she spends an additional 15 hours a week, including the majority of her weekends, giving back to the community, offering her organisational development, team-building and strategic planning skills to small charities at no charge. She has also established the Religious Diversity Centre of New Zealand, and works to encourage women to participate in peace dialogue. After 9/11 she knew she wanted to give back.

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“Prior to that, it’s not that I didn’t care, but now I feel a lot more content, I know exactly where I’m going in life, it’s helped to clarify my thoughts and improved my ability to make decisions. There’s never a day that’s not a good day. I feel great about life.”

WE’VE probably all scoffed at Facebook posts made by friends just casually letting everyone know they’ve spent their Saturday helping out at the school fair. But there could be an upside to sharing our good deeds. Research from Stanford University shows that witnessing kindness inspires kindness, “causing it to spread like a virus”.

Studies conducted at the Social Neuroscience Lab have found that people are willing to donate more when they believed others were being generous. They also displayed more friendliness and empathy than those who had watched others behave greedily.

It’s this positive ripple effect that Taryn Kljakovic hopes to encourage. The Aucklander holds down a full-time job as a publicity and promotions manager at a record label and in her spare time runs the Women’s Collective with her doctor wife Sasha Kljakovic. They faciliate a monthly event that encourages discussion on issues affecting women both locally and globally, anything from raising children to improving mental health and addressing issues in the workplace.

Last month they brought over poet and activitist Cleo Wade from New York. At their next event in late September, the team behind Lonely Lingerie will lead a discussion on dressing to feel sexy for yourself.

“The Western world is so much about personal and individual success rather than collective success,” says Taryn. “The energy in the room when you’ve got 200 women who support and care for each other, rather than competing, is pretty special.”

Administrating the event and managing the ensuing discussion online means sacrificing her mornings and some evenings — not that Taryn sees it that way.

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“It’s an extension of me, it doesn’t feel like hard work. You go to work 9-5 and you feel it, whereas this is what I enjoy the most.”

It was some years ago that she worked out that giving to the community was the key to healing. At 14, she endured a debilitating bout of depression.

“I thought I was a bad person because I was feeling so low. I needed to prove to myself that I’m a good person.”

She started volunteering at the Lower Hutt hospice on Monday nights and found her depression soon lifted.

“Now if ever I feel a bit wobbly, I get outside of myself. Because society sets us up to look in: how much we weigh, what we look like, how much we have, and that’s twisted, it’s not right, it doesn’t lead to personal happiness or fulfillment.

"Whereas [my work for the Collective] gives me a reality check and makes me feel a more rounded, fulfilled person.”

So where do you sign up for a dose of charitable happiness?

Cassandra of So They Can suggests we start by considering what our passion is, whether it’s the arts, children’s rights, the environment. It might be a case of giving to an established charity in that area, connecting with organisations or starting something yourself.

“Mother Teresa once said ‘The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small’,” says Cassandra.

“It’s so true. If you have three kids, why not extend it to one more by signing up to a child sponsorship programme, or if you’re worried about climate change, give two hours a week to conservation. Do it not because you think you should or because you think it’s the right thing to do. Just try it and see how it makes you feel. You’ll continue if you find you’re also giving to yourself.”

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