December 2018 - It is more blessed to give than to receive

It is more blessed to give than to receive

(but receiving is nice too!)


In our modern, secular, consumerist world, the words 'It is better to give than to receive' can seem out of step. Who wants to give if the alternative is receiving? Bonkers! The quote comes from the bible, but, unusually, it is St Paul quoting a Jesus-saying, rather than coming from one of the four biographies of Jesus, the gospels. It can sound pious in a faux-self-sacrificing kind of way (“Oh, really, don't bother getting anything for me this Christmas; it is better to give than receive...but a PlayStation would be nice”).

Turns out, however, that this maxim tests out in solid modern psychological research. I might think that receiving presents is going to make me happier, and choose to seek happiness above everything else. But neuroscience has shown that the pursuit of happiness actually makes us less happy! Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and author, once said "Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy."

So if I'm not pursuing happiness, but desire to be happy, what should I do? The answer, it seems, is to seek purpose and meaning instead. We might think that it is happy people who volunteer, who are generous, who put others first. But, in this chicken-and-egg scenario, it is more likely that it is through the doing of those activities, both meaningful and purposeful, that these people are gaining happiness.

Meaningful stuff, however, might not just fall into our laps, and we might need to create the opportunities. Whether it be volunteering, donating or serving others in a variety of capacities, there is, apparently, something that changes within our brains and bodies when we are feeling purposeful – and there is a happiness that can ensue. Hedonism is the lifestyle equivalent of eating empty calories – fun at the time, but leaves one feeling heavy, hungry and empty. If we only focus on our own well-being, we are going to struggle. If we get to grips with our well-doing instead, our well-being may take care of itself.

The same is true of our money. Being generous and donating to people or charities is essentially seen as a selfless act, giving of our bounty, or even of our poverty. Turns out, however, that generosity is good for us and can be for our own benefit. We feel 'beyond ourselves', involved in something greater than us, benevolent. It makes sense. I heard someone say recently, “We are never more like God than when we are being generous”. Giving generously incorporates us into the divine economy, the divine nature that is ultimately one of blessing, rather than demanding.

In this season of Christmas, a time of gift-giving and receiving, I pray that you will be blessed by your own generosity, and are caught up in the joy and happiness of the great giver.

Your Rector

This letter from Revd Nick Bird appeared in the December 2018 issue of The Grapevine