What does it mean to be benevolent? According to the dictionary, benevolence is “An inclination to perform kind, charitable acts.” Perhaps there’s someone in your life you know who’s like this: gives to others freely with no thought of themselves. Perhaps you’ve looked at this person with respect, even wishing you could be like them. It just seems like giving comes naturally to them. But you’re not like that, you think. Well, what if we told you the person who benevolence comes naturally to is…you? Would you believe us? Guess what: turns out to be true. But how? You may ask: I’ve hardly given anything. That may also be true. But that doesn’t mean you’re not hard-wired to give.
There’s been tons of research that’s come to this very conclusion. In fact, it’s not only you who possess this innate sense of benevolence, but scientists have found that all of us seem have a propensity to give. But their findings don’t end there; not only do we all have a natural propensity towards altruism and giving, but studies have found that those who give regularly to others have a greater sense of well-being. In other words: giving brings us happiness.
If that’s the case, then, why does it seem so hard to give, and so few of us do it?
A lot of us live relatively comfortable lives. We have our needs met—food, shelter, clothing—and we often have much more than that. Somewhere along the way the idea popped up in our society that the more you have, the happier you’ll be. So we follow this philosophy and often we find ourselves listless, unfulfilled and selfish. This idea undermines findings like this one, and this one. The research is clear: the more we give, the healthier and happier we are. Yet we continue to go against what comes naturally to us. It’s not that we’re “bad” people. We mean well. It just seems…hard. Well at first, it IS hard. Why?
There are a number of possible reasons. We know, for example, we’ll feel better going to the gym than sitting at home all day watching TV, but many people don’t regularly exercise. Being benevolent is similar. Think of benevolence as a muscle you have to strengthen. When muscles aren’t used, they atrophy, becoming weak and nearly useless. If you’re not in the practice of giving, then, all you might feel is that atrophied muscle of giving: weak and powerless. You might not realize how good it will make you feel, since it hasn’t been experienced.
And then there’s the vast amount of choices we have of where to give. People, groups and organizations are constantly asking us to send them money for the benefit of the under-privileged world. Having tons of choice is difficult for two reasons: 1) we don’t know which groups are legit or phony, and: 2) we get so overwhelmed by choice sometimes we become paralyzed by it. The truth is, there’s no secret key to begin acting with benevolence. Like exercising, you just have to make a decision to do it and go with it.
But there’s good news. By exercising your benevolent-muscle—though at first it may be hard, it soon gets less hard, then even less, until one day you realize giving has become so intrinsic to your normal routine, it sorta feels…natural.
Remember that one person? The one you respected for their acts of benevolence? The one you first thought could never be you: who gives constantly, unselfishly and with no thought of his or her own health or well-being? Perhaps you’re starting to smile now as you remember: with a happiness deeper than you’ve ever imagined. It dawns on you the person you thought you could never be is much more familiar now. That person: is you.