How Taking May Be Giving – Brief Article
Ellen J. Langer
We’ve all heard the old adage that it’s better to give than to receive, but why this is so is less known. As will become clear, giving is a gift–not only to others, but to ourselves–because it increases the bond between us and the person to whom we have given, tells us about ourselves and generally increases our feelings of competence.
Most of us want to be loved, but as Erich Fromm, Ph.D., astutely pointed out, it is actually the act of loving that is rewarding. Being loved is important mostly because it facilitates our opportunities to love. Just consider how suffocating it feels to be loved when we don’t love in return. When we love, we give. Every time we do something for someone else we feel effective, useful and generous. Giving a tangible gift can also lead to some reflection about what our relationship to the person is (what kind of gift is appropriate), how much we care about the person (how much effort do we want to go to), and how that person’s likes or dislikes may be similar to our own (what should we actually buy or make). These are just some of the thoughts gift-giving provokes. Resolving them helps us feel effective. The same may be said of giving advice or doing someone a service.
We usually think that the more we care about someone, the more we want to give to them. This is probably true. But what is even more interesting is that the more we give, the more we come to care about the person to whom we are giving. We feel alive in the activity. And it is the receiver who has provided the opportunity for us to feel this good, so we feel loving in return. Moreover, as social psychologist Daryl Bem, Ph.D., has taught us, we deduce our attitudes from our behavior. “I must really care or else why would I have given such a meaningful gift?”
If giving is an effective way to feel competent, mindful and loving, then the person who attends to a potential suitor’s every need and asks for nothing in return may come to care more and more for that person. But that person may be cared for less and less in return because the suitor is not being given the same chance to feel effective. We mistakenly think we will lose a partner’s affection by burdening him or her with our requests for favors or acceptance of gifts. Attending to someone else’s needs leads to affection for that person. Discouraging a desired potential suitor from giving, then, is clearly the wrong strategy for fostering affection. Rather than experience guilt or fear that the person will resent doing things for us, perhaps we should reconsider what giving can mean to the giver. Does this mean that we should all become demanding? Of course not. But in a successful long-term relationship, both parties need to feel effective and capable of caring. The recipe calls for both parties to be giving.
Now consider that many women experience a great sense of loss when their last or only child grows up and leaves home. The advice given to counteract the depression experienced when faced with an empty nest” is often to “find something else to attend to.” I would amend that advice to “Find something or someone else to give to.” Consider the bond between mother and child. Faced with the responsibility for a helpless infant, no one will argue that mothers give–and give a lot. With all the giving a mother has before her, it is no wonder the bond with her child grows stronger and stronger as the baby grows. And in this giving, a mom feels effective-perhaps tired, but effective. When her young adult leaves home, however, a mother has fewer ways of feeling competent. Those who care about her will probably feel good “taking care” of her, “giving” to her, now that she is lonely and depressed. What she may need instead is to give to them. Just think about it: It may be better to give than to receive–unless one wants to give the joy of giving.
Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is author of The Power of Mindful Learning (Perseus, 1997) and Mindfulness (Perseus, 1989).
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