Reflections on the Meaning of Love

Generosity from Love

“The habit of giving only enhances the desire to give.”

– Walt Whitman

Giving to other beings is an act of love.  I believe that generosity is an innate human quality, deeper than the greed that sometimes obscures it.  In Buddhist psychology, the root causes of human suffering are tied to what are known as the “three poisons” of greed, hatred and delusion.  In recognition that greed is part of the human experience, rather than trying to eradicate it per se, it’s best to work with the underlying fear that’s driving it (i.e., fear related survival, fear of being good enough, etc.).

Actively choosing to be generous, even if you don’t “feel” like it, is a great way to work with the underlying fear that drives greedy behavior.  It’s also a way to reconnect with a deep part of your humanity and express love toward another.

While there are so many ways to be generous, I’m going to discuss just a few that I particularly like: listening, making “donations,” and living simply.


Famed writer and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has noted that listening is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to another human being (CD recording Living A Life of Inner Peace, 2004).

Listening with an open mind and state of presence is a way of deeply connecting with another person.  Dr. Daniel Siegel, an expert in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, talks about how tuning into the internal world of another actually changes the neural wiring in our brains in a positive way.   He uses the expression of “feeling felt” by another, to describe this attunement process that takes place between people who love and care about one another.   Listening openly, with a sense of curiosity, is a key component of attunement, which Dr. Siegel has noted contributes to a sense of vitality and wellbeing in both parties.  These positive outcomes have been validated not only through anecdotal experience, but also through scientific inquiry.

Making “Donations”

The two obvious ways to donate are by giving away material or monetary possessions to individuals, communities, causes or organizations in need.

Another thing that anybody can give to others, regardless of your own physical or financial resources, is the gift of time.  This can be given by volunteering for an organization or through more informal means.

Some ideas? Spend time visiting with elders at a nursing home who don’t have any family.  Go to a food bank and offer to help them serve food, clean or organize.   Provide companionship to animals at your local animal shelter.  Offer to babysit your neighbor’s children.

It’s a complete win-win situation, because the recipient benefits from your time, and as the giver, it feels great to be generous.   As a matter of fact, there is an impressive amount of empirical data demonstrating the many benefits associated with giving.

As Stephen Post, PhD., Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics in the School of Medicine, Stony Brook University (SUNY) writes: “There is solid evidence to support the perennial hypothesis that benevolent emotions, attitudes, and actions centered on the good of others contribute to the giver’s happiness, health, and even longevity. Although genuine benevolence must be chiefly motivated by concern for others, it also has the side effect of nourishing the giver.”

The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, Altruism, Compassion, and Service, of which Dr. Post is President, has identified the following benefits to giving:

-Engaging in volunteer activity improves physical health and emotional wellbeing; provides a greater sense of purpose and meaning; and increases optimism (Source: The Do Good Live Well Survey of 4,500 adults in the US, 2010)

-Making a financial donation to strangers activates the reward/feel good center in the brain (Source: Collaborative project involving the National Institute of Mental Health).

-Pro-social spending (e.g., buying things for others and giving to charities) is associated with significantly higher happiness than spending on oneself (published in Science, 2008, by researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia)

One caveat noted by Dr. Post, which is self-evident, is that balance is important; we need to balance the giving of one’s energy with self-care.  Otherwise, the imbalance can lead to burnout.

“The working hypothesis is that one of the healthiest things a person can do is to step back from self-preoccupation and self-worry, as well as from hostile and bitter emotions; there is no more obvious way of doing this than focusing attention on helping others.  This transformation of being and doing seems to promote emotional and physical wellbeing; odds are, it will add some years to life. Whether we get started young or as older adults, this transformation has health benefits. The experience of helping others provides meaning, a sense of self-worth, a social role, and health enhancement.”

As a therapist, when I have clients that are struggling with depression or low self-esteem, that latter of which involves a sense that something is lacking in themselves, I sometimes help them reconnect with their plentiful, intact self, by exploring ways to be generous to others.  This is a good contradiction to the conditioned “not enough” self that so many people have internalized.   We always having something to give to others, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.  And, as noted previously, the act of giving is an act of love that benefits all involved, on physical, emotional and social levels.

Living Simply

By choosing to live simply, we are being generous and acting in the name of love by limiting our consumption of the planet’s resources.

In the national bestseller, “All About Love,” scholar Bell Hooks discusses the inherent connection between love and generosity, and how greed destroys that natural bond.  She notes: “the will to sacrifice on behalf of another, always present when there is love, is annihilated by greed.”  (Hooks, 2000, p. 125)

Hooks explains how our consumer-driven, material-oriented culture leads to much suffering and makes it difficult for love to thrive.  “Isolation and loneliness are central causes of depression and despair.  Yet they are the outcome of life in a culture where things matter more than people.  Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption.  A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 105).

Hooks goes on to say that “living simply” is an antidote to our culture that tends to promote materialism and greed.   “Greed subsumes love and compassion; living simply makes room for them.  Living simply is the primary way everyone can resist greed every day.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 125)

Again, the message here is to work with greed.  Living simply is congruent with a spirit of generosity and compassion, as Hooks notes.  This approach involves things like sharing resources and respecting the interdependent nature of our world.

She goes on to say: “The choice to live simply necessarily enhances our capacity to love.  It is the way we learn to practice compassion, daily affirming our connection to the world community.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 125).

One last plug on generosity: research shows that one’s level of happiness is not increased by the amount of money one makes, once you hit a threshold somewhere between earning 60K and 75K per year in the developed world.   Studies out of Princeton University and University of Wisconsin at Madison found that there’s a “$75,000 cap on happiness” (TIME Magazine, October 10, 2011, “Special Money Issue”).  Additionally, these researchers noted that rather than getting more things, it’s experiences that “enhance the feelings of meaning and social connection that undergird happiness.”

As financial guru Suze Orman says, money is like health; if you don’t have it, you’ll be pretty miserable, but if you do, it’s no guarantee of happiness.  So, the greed mentality of earning more money and accumulating more material goods, which some are conditioned to believe will make them happier, is simply not true.   Yes, you need a certain amount of money to meet your basic needs and without this, life will be quite stressful.  But beyond that, an increase in money doesn’t correlate with more happiness. But, generosity does.

Next Section: Simple Expressions of Love

  1. Good to hear this here.

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