A young American mother from California decides to start a funding campaign to provide slings to Syrian refugee mothers — mothers who have nothing in which to carry their children. She has learned that, weary from fleeing danger, many such mothers accidentally drop and injure their babies.
The woman from California is surprised when her campaign exceeds the funding percentage. With other mothers in her network, she flies halfway around the world to present slings to families arriving on a ferry. In an interview for a major television network, she explains that she and her colleagues have families and lives of their own but could not sit back and do nothing.
This woman could have given to one of many existing charities but instead decided to give in a greater way. What is it that makes some people give at a distance while others seem to give until it hurts? In The Giving Way to Happiness, with a foreword by Deepak Chopra, Jenny Santi uses narratives and psychosocial theories to explain the phenomenon of giving in a new way.
A search for books on giving reveals many texts designed for children. Teachers will find books to help the young understand the value of sharing and generosity — books like The Giving Tree, The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need, Mama, I’ll Give You the World, and A Kid’s Guide to Giving. But readers and researchers interested in examining the concept from an adult perspective will find fewer options. Part of what sets Santi’s book apart from the existing texts on philanthropy is the access she offers to both well-known and nearly inaccessible giving innovators from the international community. She offers stories from Goldie Hawn, Phillipe Cousteau, Richard Rockefeller, Natalia Vodianova, Liz Alderman, and many others whose descriptions of various charities and international giving organizations underpin the concept of altruism as it exists in the global arena.
Santi’s study of psychology reveals that much of the giving in the book can be defined as empathy altruism, a hypothesis that suggests feelings of compassion and sympathy (empathy) lead to the motivated desire to improve or increase the welfare of an individual in need (altruism).
The empathy altruism hypothesis stands in contrast to social exchange theory, which suggests people only help others when the benefits they receive outweigh the costs to act. Unlike ordinary altruism, which can be seen as a foundation for social exchange theory, empathy altruism does not focus on the personal costs to the doer, but, instead, on the desire to help or commit good deeds that are an end to themselves.
Santi describes the work of physician and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who may be best known for his groundbreaking form of existential analysis known as logotherapy. Santi details Frankl’s history as a promising student in Vienna and how surviving Auschwitz led the doctor to an understanding of the individual nature of meaning-making. Through his work with other survivors, Frankl came to the realization that people obtain meaning through relationships, enjoyable acts, or in the midst of suffering.
Santi takes this realization further to describe more clearly why people come to a place of wanting to give selflessly. “While people have found meaning amid extreme circumstances,” she writes, “the irony is that even people who have comfortable lives and are stable in their work and relationships can feel hollow and unfulfilled, and describe feeling ‘off track’ or ‘out of sync’ in some way despite their conventionally successful lives.” These people, Santi writes, knowing that they are not living their life purpose, “feel a chronic, lingering dissatisfaction and an absence of inner peace.”
The focus of the book is indeed on what giving does to the giver. In his foreword, Chopra sums up one overarching theme:
“The more you give, the more you will receive, because you will keep the abundance of the universe circulating in your life. In fact, anything that is of value in life only multiplies when it is given.”
The Giving Way is unique, in that it does not focus solely on the experience of giving in the way that books about becoming a philanthropist or entrepreneur would (see Tina Seelig’s What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, for instance). Santi uses narrative to interweave theory with practice and offers steps for would-be givers. What she writes fits well with other “big idea giving books,” such as President Clinton’s Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World and Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen’s Giving 2.0.
Santi discusses the physiological ways that giving activates the pleasure centers of the brain, and the ways that individuals are essentially hardwired to seek their purpose in life. Seeking purpose often develops into career goals that, due to a desire to find meaning, grow into a search for a calling. But unlike the book Being Called, which I reviewed here and which focuses on quantifying the experience of calling, Santi describes the action of a calling through the stories of people like Jill Robinson, who gave up a traditional role and became a crusader for animal rights.
And what further sets The Giving Way apart from other books within the same category is the final chapter, in which Santi helps readers understand their own path to giving — and yet is honest about potential drawbacks to this type of generosity.
Here, Santi discusses negative aspects of giving, such as disenchantment, exploitation, and forced giving — that is, being shamed into giving or sending a donation after seeing what she calls “poverty porn,” the stereotypical images of people or animals in terrible situations.
But, after her list of drawbacks, Santi moves into a detailed list of fourteen steps to giving that enable the reader to determine what types of patronage will engage the pleasure centers in their brain.
“There are things we will and should do out of obligation, sympathy, and a sense of responsibility, and in the spirit of public service,” Santi writes. “But then again, there are ways to give that not only make a difference to the lives of others but also bring us great joy.”
While she touches on the notion that giving is in some way selfish, Santi weaves in the words of Aristotle, St. Francis, and other historical and contemporary figures to support the positive and energizing experience of giving. She deftly brings together accessibly-written scientific discussions and stories from givers, leaving the reader feeling encouraged about philanthropy.
The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving
Tarcher, October 2015
Hardcover, 353 pages