I just turned 55 and there’s still a lot I don’t know. I don’t know why 24-hour convenience stores have locks on the door. I don’t know why we use the phrase “found alone.” If you’re found, I’m pretty sure you’re not alone—right? And I don’t know why when a clown dies all the other clowns come to the funeral separately; I mean, shouldn’t they all get out of one vehicle? These are the questions that keep me up at night. That said, there are a couple certainties that I have picked up along the way. For example, if you drop a slice of pizza, it always falls cheese-side down. Here’s another: The more you spend on a car wash, the more likely it is to rain the next day. Oh and I’ve learned one other thing; the secret to happiness isn’t acquiring things; it’s giving them away.
The theme of this month’s issue is “abundance” and if you go to the bookstore, you’ll find the shelves filled with tomes showing you how to acquire wealth and success for just $29.95. Here’s some free advice: Skip the money section, buy a Dr. Seuss book and give it to a child. Or better yet, take it to the children’s hospital, find a 6-year-old waiting for surgery and read it to them.
I’m a journalist and writer so I am an observer of people and the human condition. Where a painter uses oil and canvas, I use individuals and emotion to tell a story, and time and time again I see the same predictable endings and outcomes. People who chase money with no purpose for it beyond themselves always end up empty. And more often than not they try to fill that emptiness with drugs, booze, sex or another $3,000 designer bag that sits useless in the walk-in closet. They end up staring at their own reflection asking, “Why aren’t I happy? I thought the money would make me happy.”
Conversely I have met hundreds of people full of contentment because of what they give away and often it is not money. It is time. It is themselves. It is love.
Do you know what every single person who becomes a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” says a year after volunteering to mentor a child through that program? Every single one. “I did this to help a child and make their life better but I think I’m getting as much out of it as the kid.”
Talk to the people who volunteer at the food bank or soup kitchen or the Humane Society—same thing. The simple act of helping others fills us in a way nothing else does.
Don’t believe me? You think I’m some Bible thumper pushing a faith agenda? I swear I’m not and I can prove it. Next time you’re in the convenience store, linger a bit before you pay for your stuff and just watch the coffee bar area. Pick out one person who looks like life has been hammering them flatter than yesterday’s road-kill; then when you pay say, “And I’ve got his/her coffee, too.” Watch their face when they go to pay and then scan the store looking for the generous stranger. If they see you raise your own cup and smile and then get off the stage. That buck-fifty you just spent will give you a better feeling than a $50 sweater from Amazon Prime that you don’t even need. I can’t explain why it works in such a disproportionate fashion; it just does.
If “giving” isn’t the secret to a happy life, it’s certainly on the short list. And here’s something those fancy “get rich quick” books don’t tell you: Giving has a way of circling around. Those nickels and dimes you spent helping others have a funny way of coming back to you dressed as quarters.
I do lots of volunteer work and I’ll never forget trying to buy a mattress from a local store years ago. The owner gave me a discount and when I asked him why he said, “Because you’ve hosted the juvenile diabetes gala and golf tournament more than once and my daughter is type 1.”
I told him I couldn’t accept his gift and he told me “then you can’t buy a mattress here” and he wasn’t kidding. In an effort not to insult him, we settled on a less generous discount and shook hands. That’s not why I helped that charity or continue to do so when called upon. My point is kindness has a way of coming back to you. And you sleep sounder at night no matter what mattress you are on.
So that’s my advice if you’re looking for a fuller life. Be kind. Be generous. Oh, but also be smart. If you’re driving home some dark rainy night and a guy in a bloody trench coat, carrying an ax, is hitchhiking, I’d let that one go. I mean, you’re not an idiot.