Giving is Living

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” —Albert Einstein

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Could the secret to a better life be as easy as helping others? The published scientific research is compelling:

  • According to a study in Social Science & Medicine, people who volunteer every week are more likely to describe themselves as very happy.
  • Research shows an 18% lower rate of death among people who are caregivers in their family, versus non-caregivers.
  • A meta-analysis of 14 studies in 2013 showed that organizational or formal volunteering reduced the death risk of people aged 55 or more by 24%.
  • Tutoring can boost your stamina, memory, and physical flexibility while reducing depression.
  • Dopamine, endorphins and serotonin levels (“happy brain chemicals”) increase after acts of giving. We’ve all had that feeling of euphoria when we gift something that someone else truly likes.

Sounds easy enough: You get when you give. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • First, realize you’re probably not that nice, or at least admit you could be even kinder.
  • Resolve to do better, to help others without benefit or attention.
  • Pray or meditate, sending love and compassion to your friends and family, and slowly enlarge this group to include more people.
  • Battle moral dilemmas by doing the right thing. Follow your small voice, and do the hard work. My dad used to say, “The hard choice and the right choice are often the same one.”

Sometimes, we need a clearer roadmap. Here are some specific tasks you can start on today:

  • Look and listen for opportunities to help. Resolve to help at least one person every day.
  • Find volunteer opportunities. Does your facility offer volunteer positions in a hospice or as GED tutors, chapel volunteers, etc.?
  • If you follow a certain faith practice, go to services to enjoy fellowship with others.
  • Read fiction or self-help nonfiction. It can help change the way you view people.
  • Gaze at stars or nature. It promotes prosocial behavior (the intent to benefit others) by humbling oneself in seeing the grandness of the universe or natural world.
  • Give until it hurts. Be generous. It will (and should) be a little uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier and more fulfilling with time. The benefits can be even more satisfying when you give anonymously or when you give to someone you don’t know or particularly like.

This is no easy task. It may feel a bit unnatural or go against your very fiber, especially in prison. Kindness can easily be mistaken for weakness, which others may try to exploit. Have faith in the process. When you are trusting and helpful, you can teach and inspire others to become the same. We take social cues from people around us. You can change the expectation of what an incarcerated person is or how they’re supposed to act.

Every day at lunch, I ask myself, what have I done for people who aren’t me today? The way I spend the rest of my day depends on that answer. I saw some small, yet powerful, changes in my demeanor. My family says I look happier, more peaceful and rested. I overheard someone describe me as kind and generous (first time ever). I’m far from truly selfless—that may be impossible, but the bottom line is that in helping others I may save myself.

This article is dedicated to my sister, Toni, the most giving, compassionate, loving person I know, who taught me that giving
back and doing good is not about how you live, but why you live.

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