Are philanthropic endeavors narcissistic? Selfless? Do the motivations even matter?
When I pose these questions, I immediately think about the South African family who hosted my husband’s stay in the Peace Corps. His family did not have much, but they shared their food, and even their dinner table, with anybody from the village who needed a meal. They did not think of their actions as selfless, because they adhere to “ubuntu,” a term that means “I am a person through other people.” In essence, philanthropic acts are not external, because we should see others as extensions of ourselves.
Ask people who have given time or money about their experiences, and they almost always note the ways in which their experiences helping others made them, in turn, more fulfilled.
Dr. Lisa Nastasi, a DivineCaroline columnist who co-developed the Mindfulness Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital, quotes the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin in a book she is writing on happiness: “We are all co-creating the universe. What you and I are becoming, the world is becoming.”
In essence, says Nastasi, if you are aware of your own inner happiness, basic goodness, and brilliance, you will positively affect others. Indeed, you will be helping both yourself and others to create meaningfully happy lives.
“Psychologists might call this optimism, an upward spiral, high functioning, or subjective well-being. They might even call it happiness,” she writes in an email interview. “However you phrase it, this is the only kind of success that really matters.”
And a significant percentage of Americans seem to get this. Estimates place the number of United States nonprofits at between 1.4 and 1.6 million, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 61.2 million people—more than 26 percent of the population above the age of sixteen—volunteered through or for an organization from September 2005–2006. This was a slight drop from previous years, but it is a decent slice of the country; a populace often maligned as selfish and insulated.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, who used to head the Red Cross, once said of volunteerism in America: “The idea of giving to others is ingrained in our nature, taught by our parents, who were taught by theirs.”
Nastasi notes that Positive Psychology, the “new” science of happiness, links altruistic acts to happiness. She points out that Martin Seligman, the founding father of the Positive Psychology movement, writes in his book, Authentic Happiness: “When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers.”
Nastasi’s personal journey has been a testament to the power of altruism. She volunteers at a London school each week, helping children with reading and comprehension. She also supports Women for Women International, which helps women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives by providing financial and emotional support, job skills training, and more.
Nastasi’s childhood involved being shuttled between Wyoming and Bronxville, New York—the result of divorced parents—but says “one of the few constants that remained in my life as a core value modeled by my parents was the importance of helping others.”
When Nastasi helps a child improve his reading, or when she brings a small gift for a student and receives hearty appreciation, she feels she gets back much more than she gives. “Volunteering my time in this way feels ‘selfish’ to me in the best possible way,” she writes.
“For me personally to help others find their voice through literacy and reading, through supporting women’s rights in war-torn countries, or through writing a column for a magazine that was created to give women a voice, all contribute to a deep sense of purpose that helps shape and give meaning to my life,” writes Nastasi.
Nastasi points to the words of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet: “From myself, I am copper, through you friend, I am gold. From myself, I am a stone, but through you, I am a gem.”