When you hear the jingle of the Salvation Army bell and glimpse the weary face of the volunteer in the Santa suit out of the corner of your eye, you can’t help but turn your head sharply in the other direction to avoid his request for a donation.
The truth is, you’re no grinch, and you’d love to help, but after buying everyone on your list gifts and mustering the energy to go shopping after work, you’re just tapped out.
If this scene is familiar, don’t lose heart, say the experts. “A lot of people have the misconception that in order to give back meaningfully you have to act like Mother Teresa or Gandhi all the time,” says Adam Grant, professor at Wharton and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. “But that’s not the case.” There are numerous opportunities to give in your daily life that take little, energy or money, but still can make a meaningful impact.
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Grant likes to talk about a successful entrepreneur and mentor he knows who makes it a point to do five-minute favors for people numerous times a day. “A five-minute favor is essentially a way of adding high value to another person’s life, and it’s of low cost to you,” says Grant.
“This entrepreneur is constantly looking for ways that he can connect people who might benefit from knowing one another,” says Grant. “He also goes out of his way to recognize other people who are generous, but aren’t getting credit for it, by writing spontaneous recommendations and sending them to an unwitting boss or putting a recommendation on LinkedIn.”
Grant not only believes that demonstrating these behaviors will impact others, but that exhibiting prosocial behavior will also benefit you, as you will become energized and motivated by the “good” you are causing.
Stephen Post professor of Preventative Medicine and author of The Hidden Gifts of Giving, says it’s important not to do just anything, but to find something meaningful that you are called to do, which gives you a sense of purpose, and then do that activity, even if it’s just for one or two hours a week.
“When we are engaged in activities where we are giving back, the brain is active in certain ways that create a sense of calmness and happiness, and the mind’s attention is deflected from the problems of the self and the anxieties of the self,” says Post.
You don’t have to be directly making a difference in a person’s life, he says. “Studies have shown that simply writing a check to an organization that has meaning to you can increase the ‘feel good’ chemicals in your brain.”
Individuals without a lot of time or resources could decide to forgo their gourmet coffee or chai habit all month, for example, and instead spend that time looking at nonprofit projects on Crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo, Crowdrise, DonorsChoose.org or Network for Good and give that money to a different charitable organization that is meaningful to them.
For Carleen Cullen, director of Cool the Earth, a nonprofit that encourages families to take environmental actions, giving back to the earth is an easy way to incorporate making a difference into your daily routine.
“There are more than 70 different basic recommendations suggested on cooltheearth.org, from recycling all your bottles and cans to having a car-free weekend, where you purposely only bike or walk and then tell your friends about it to build community support for your action,” says Cullen.
“Getting civically engaged about something you care about is an important way to give back,” says Cullen. “People think, ‘Does it really matter if I write a letter to my congressman or to the local newspaper supporting an initiative?’ But those things really do matter.” Or, even easier is to spend time signing petitions, she says. “It takes about one minute to sign a petition online about something you care about.”
Even if you don’t have a lot of time to do weekly volunteer work where you show up at an organization, there are ample opportunities to volunteer your skills in small increments to nonprofits in need, suggests Amanda MacArthur, vice president of PYXERA Global, an organization that helps place skilled business volunteers with organizations that can utilize their talents.
Virtual volunteering has become really popular, says MacArthur. “Sparked.com is one organization that uses micro volunteers, who can volunteer online for just 30 minutes at a time to come up with everything from writing social media posts for a nonprofit, or review a business plan for a charitable organization.”
“Hosting someone in your home who is traveling internationally is another great way to volunteer, which many people don’t consider,” says MacArthur. Her organization helps connect people who are traveling abroad as students or teachers to families or individuals who are willing to host them. “Sharing your culture with someone is a very significant way to give back.”
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Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
Giving back to another person, or to the planet, even when our lives are hectic, can satisfy our need to deepen our lives and add satisfaction. “If you can find simple ways to make a difference that are not overwhelming to yourself, by doing things you enjoy, the net result is going to be positive,” says Post.
Similarly, Cullen says the effect of her program on participants always proves beneficial, and not just on the environment. “After families start taking earth-friendly actions, just by doing something as simple as changing their light bulbs to energy-efficient ones, they often say how much better they feel because they’re doing something that is larger than just themselves, for the greater good of future generations.”
Grant, whose website, giveandtake.com, includes a self assessment where people can measure their style of giving, couldn’t agree more. “If you look at where people derive a sense of significance and purpose from, it’s usually always less about ‘what have I done for myself?’ and more about, ‘what lasting contributions have I made for others?’”
Jenny Jedeikin is a writer based in Northern California whose writing has appeared in In Style, Rolling Stone and The San Francisco Chronicle.
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