Ellen Langer

It’s nice to receive gifts. Often it tells us that someone cares, to say nothing of now being in the possession of that new item. Giving, on the other hand, tells us more about ourselves; increases the bond between us and the person to whom we have given something, and provokes mindfulness in us.

The decision to give to someone typically leads to at least some reflection about what our relationship to the person is (what kind of gift is appropriate), how much we do or do not care about the person (how much effort/expense 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/make). These are just some of the thoughts gift-giving typically provokes. The same may be said of giving advice or doing someone a service. These have the added benefit of showing us that we are capable.

This line of thinking leads me to two unusual thoughts: one concerns the question of why being nice often isn’t as successful with the opposite sex as being demanding. The second concerns at least a partial remedy to the empty-nest problem.

Most of us want to be loved, but as Erich Fromm astutely pointed out, it is actually loving that is rewarding. Being loved just facilitates our opportunities to love. To accept this just consider how suffocating it feels to be loved when we can’t return the feelings. When we love, we give. If giving is an effective way to feel competent, mindful, and loving, then the person who attends to every need of a potential suitor and asks for or takes nothing in return, is effectively denying the suitor a chance to feel effective. Attending to someone else’s needs leads to affection for the person attended to. Discouraging a desired potential suitor from giving, then, is clearly the wrong strategy. 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. Of course for a successful long term relationship, both parties need to feel effective and experience themselves as caring. The not-so-nice person may win the suitor, but still loses. 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 remedy for the depression experienced when faced with an “empty-nest,” is often to “find something else to attend to.” I would amend that advice in light of this discussion to “find something or someone else to give to.” The bond between a mother and child initially may be instinctual. Nevertheless, consider what the mother’s day consists of in the face of the responsibility she now has for a helpless infant. With all the giving she has before her, it is no wonder the bond grows strong. If her marital relationship is lacking in any way, even more attention is likely to be given to the child. Attention in this instance translates into giving. A mother’s role is certainly demanding, but now we can see new ways it may be rewarding. When the young adult leaves home, how will the mother feel competent? What will now provoke her mindfulness and experience of loving? Those who care about her will probably give to her now that she is depressed and lonely. What she may need instead, is to give to them.

Aristotle said that it is difficult to forgive someone who has done a favor for us. This made sense given our traditional ways of thinking. Just think about it, it may be better to give than to receive, unless one wants to give the joy of giving.