I used to visit a woman who wore a mask. She was from Liverpool, a starkly witty, funny, irreverent and vibrant elderly lady, who just happened to have cancer. The illness had attacked her right eye, claiming it along with half her face.

I was volunteering for a charity in London called The Befriending Network, an organisation supporting the terminally ill through giving the gift of friendship.  I would visit her most weeks and spend time with her. Mostly we just chatted, or I helped her with household chores and other practical things. She felt immensely ugly, having to wear a prosthetic mask over half her face, and one day she asked me if I’d like to see her without her mask. I said ‘of course’, knowing that she wanted this deeper intimacy with me, but feared rejection. I felt humbled she trusted me and also wanted this level of connection. Our relationship deepened and over many hours, she shared her life story, her joys and pain, her deep wisdom, and her fears.

I’ve never forgotten the way my encounters with Lucy lit up my life. She blessed me in a way I’ve rarely encountered since. I was always fully aware that she was the one doing the giving, not me. I gained so much from spending time with her, from the opportunity to be there for her and be part of her life. My life was immeasurably enriched in unusual ways and it felt much more meaningful.

We rise by lifting others. Our soul’s grow, and find happiness, when we give to others. In fact, we are wired to be compassionate and kind. It is a genetic necessity for human survival. The trust, connection and cooperation engendered through giving, creates community, restores the lonely hearts and brings joy.

“We make a living by what we get. But we make a life by what we give.” –  Winston Churchill

There is something so natural about giving when we actually do it that it makes one wonder why we can fall prey to the mind that champions self-centredness as the route to peace and happiness. The mind tries to talk the heart out of generosity and kindness.

There are many wonderful benefits of giving to others. The most important has to be happiness.

Giving is the Key to Happiness

When you help others, your life starts to have meaning and purpose. Real joy comes not from material possessions but from people. When we give our hearts in kindness and love, we get the riches of the universe, and the greatest of these is happiness. When you’re generous with others, you feel abundant, your life feels fertile and rich with possibility. The fruits of generosity rub off as an abundance mindset and support you to be more wealthy in all areas of your life.

It is empowering to feel able to help others. By helping others, you are given great gifts – the space to be kind, to create good karma, and to lift yourself up as you serve another.

When you lose yourself in another’s challenges, you trigger feelings of gratitude for your own life. The problems you’re facing somehow lose their shine, and you don’t see them as major issues anymore. You feel grateful for your life as you support another with their life. This is a true gift; psychologists and spiritual mystics alike have long been saying gratitude is an important way we create true happiness and peace.

In helping others, including animals, you also help yourself. I’ve always found this to be true. As I give love to my cat and stroke and massage her, I start to relax and release stress. I’m giving as I’m receiving. This is the same when I’m working as a healing practitioner; the healing energy flows through me first, then into the other person, so of course I’m benefitting once again.

We are much more deeply connected than we could ever imagine, and everything we do to another, we do to ourselves. As we encourage another, or celebrate their success, we are sending the same message to ourselves. There really is no “other”, we are all droplets of the same ocean, so we are really helping ourselves when we give to the “other.”

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?  –  Martin Luther King Jr.

The Science Behind Giving

Associate Director of The Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medical School, Emma Seppala, says suffering also has a bright side to which research has paid less attention, and that is compassion. Emma says that human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it.

“The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving. A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centres” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves!” – Emma Seppala

A 2008 study by Harvard Business School professor, Michael Norton, and two of his colleagues, discovered that giving money to someone else lifted participants’ happiness more than actually spending it on themselves.

Scientists also believe that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” Oxytocin is also released when we give to others. Oxytocin induces feelings of euphoria and connection to others.

Helping Others is Contagious

Paul Zak, the director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has found that oxytocin causes people to be more generous and feel greater empathy towards others. He says that people on an “oxytocin high” can also jumpstart a “virtuous circle, where one person’s generous behaviour triggers another’s.”

Your kind actions can start a ripple effect in your community and studies show that people seeing someone being compassionate and helping others, inspires them to do the same. Harvard Medical School researchers found that “paying it forward” spreads by three degrees, ending up with a network of people doing good, totally unrelated to the first person.

A Few Tips on How to Genuinely Help Others

  • Leave your agenda at home.
  • Suspend all judgement. You really have no idea on the other persons circumstances!
  • Your support needs to speak to their needs, not to what you think they need.
  • Don’t colonize someone.
  • Really listening and understanding another’s world
  • Ask what they need and give them a choice of what type of help they would like.
  • Always come from your heart.
  • When you’re with someone, give your full attention and presence.
  • Where appropriate, touch someone – hold their hand, let them feel your love physically.
  • Be graciously unconditional.

Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart. –  Elizabeth Andrew

I can remember sitting in Lucy’s sunny living room and gazing at her still expressive face, in spite of the ravages of illness, feeling such love and admiration. I was given an intimate window into someone else’s world, shown the stories of a lifetime, and provided with the gift of an elder’s wisdom. Even now, 20 years later, the recollection of her is vivid and my heart feels warm at this most deeply human encounter we shared. I just hope that if I ever met her again, I’d be able to share how I’d found the courage to drop my own masks, and allowed my heart to be seen in deep authenticity just as she inspired me to do.