Even though I am a philanthropy adviser by profession, most of the time, I don't like the word philanthropy. It's often misunderstood (and misspelled!). It sounds too elite, and it tends to exclude a lot of people. Most of us don't even consider getting involved in the philanthropic space because we're not as rich as Bill Gates and Oprah.
So it's time we redefined philanthropy—by going back to its roots. Over the years we have come to associate the word with benefactions in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. But etymologically, philanthropy simply means the love of humanity, from the Greek root words phil ("loving") and anthropos ("mankind"). And what has been true throughout history is that the poor give much more generously than the rich. And we can all be philanthropists by giving our time, talents, or treasures to something we care about.
Over the years, I have gathered insights from hundreds of people from various philanthropists from all walks of life—they include brilliant entrepreneurs, idealistic students, die-hard activists, passionate volunteers, and even very young, kindhearted children, each of whom has given to something close to their hearts. They have taught me that their own acts of philanthropy have led them to find their purpose, have a meaningful career, heal from painful experiences, find love, meet incredible people, discover meaning beyond material success, and find real happiness and fulfillment. Here are some of the best things I have learned from them about what happens when you give from the heart:
1. You'll meet a lot of interesting people you would not have otherwise met.
Tom Freston, co-founder of MTV, said about volunteering his time: "One door opens to ten other doors. [Giving back] has made my circle of friends and acquaintances much more diverse and interesting."
2. You'll have fun.
When passionate activists and volunteers were asked about how they felt about having given their to various causes—whether they were campaigning against war or animal testing; or pushing for ambitious changes in LGBT rights or education—the sense of happiness and camaraderie fostered through intense shared experiences was one of the themes they most commonly voiced out. That's just one reason why those who "gave it all up" to make a difference, and who face the direst situations, are nevertheless some of the happiest, most fulfilled, and least angst-ridden people you'll ever meet.
3. It will help you heal from painful experiences.
In a study of alcoholics going through the Alcoholics Anonymous program, those who helped others were nearly twice as likely to stay sober a year later, and their levels of depression were lower too. Experts call this the "wounded healer" principle. Helping has a tremendous benefit for those who need it and for the helpers themselves.
4. You will find fulfillment.
Anyone who has heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs knows that the highest of human motivations is self-actualization: At the highest level, the individual ultimately works to fulfill their own potential. But what not many people know is that in the late 1960s, after having done more research on human behavior, Maslow amended his model. This was not well-publicized because he suffered a heart attack and died shortly after he came up with his amended model.
The new model placed self-transcendence, in which individuals seek a benefit beyond the purely personal, as the final step—beyond self-actualization. As Maslow put it in his unpublished October 1966 paper, "the good of other people must be invoked." At the level of self-transcendence—the greatest need of man—one's own needs are put aside in favor of service to others.
5. You will find happiness.
I have never been a naturally happy and cheerful person, and there have been many stretches of my life when I struggled with deep depression. The times I have felt the happiest often were the times when I felt I was being of help to other people.
These ideas are backed by numerous scientific studies as well. In one such study in 2009, German psychologist Malte Klar and American professor Tim Kasser concluded that activism or dedication to social causes provide so many of the requirements for human happiness, such as a sense of efficacy, a conviction that one is changing the world, a rich social network, and a sense of self-transcendence, of being part of something larger than your own individual concerns. All these things, Kasser says, have been shown to make us happier.
It's easier than you think to give your time, treasures, or talents to something you care about, and chances are, you'll find it tremendously satisfying. It won't cost you a lot of money, and it won't take up so much of your time, but it's going to make your life more interesting. Doors will open up, you'll feel more capable, and incredible things that you never thought could happen begin to happen to you. So why not give it a go? You don't really have anything to lose.