Service – sounds like a chore already, doesn’t it? And when we think of upcoming festive season, we may feel some excitement at the festivities coupled with a weight of how much we’re physically and mentally going to need to do for others. How much giving can we do?
But can we approach things differently? Not only in terms of our attitude and motivations but also in the way in which we attend to people that we are serving.
Why be an altruist?
Altruism is defined as ‘unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others’ (Miriam Webster Dictionary).
Functional MRI scans show that altruistic and giving behaviours activate the brain’s mesolimbic reward system, an area that is stimulated when we are rewarded. The implication here is that this ‘giving behaviour’ may give us a euphoric physical sensation, or a ‘helper’s high’ and can improve emotional wellbeing and reduce stress in the long term (Doing Good Does You Good report, The Mental Health Foundation, 2012).
‘It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself…’ ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Taking it a step further – the true altruist
It can be tempting to calculate the benefits of our altruism like they do in the effective altruist movement – whereby we think about the things we will get back from doing something good.
How often do you hear someone say, ‘I’m not going to get them a present because they don’t get me one’? – As though life has to be some kind of calculated equal exchange.
Eckhart Tolle argues that while doing good for your own reward may benefit people, it does have the effect of strengthening your ego and does not make you free. The ego is effectively the image of ourselves that we often seek to strengthen. If we can let go of that image, even just momentarily, and allow ourselves not to be rewarded, we’re freeing ourselves from the chains of such affirmation, – freeing ourselves from the neediness of boosting the ego and just allowing the act of giving to be just as it is.
A mindful touch
The way in which we give attention is key. When we are preparing food for relatives or friends, are we rushing through just to finish or can we apply a kind of mindful attention to what we are doing. Can we truly see the colour of the food we prepare, and listen as the knife crushes into each item? Can we feel the soap suds as we wash up and watch as the plates glisten on the draining board? We may even like to Press Pause as I discussed in a previous blog.
Can we bring our mind back each time it wanders (as they so often do) to truly attend to the moment? Each moment is special, especially when we’re actually there.
Giving and attending to what we give has true power.
I’ll leave you with these words by Winston Churchill.
‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’