New Zealand Law Society - Adopt the giving lifestyle today. Now, with boundaries!

Adopt the giving lifestyle today. Now, with boundaries!

Adopt the giving lifestyle today. Now, with boundaries!

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Let me give you a beautiful, research-backed, thoroughly reliable recipe for a good life: be a giver with excellent boundaries. Boom. What a delicious recipe: rich with humanity, loaded with promise, and no raisins.

I was reflecting on this after checking in with what other lawyer advice columnists have been saying. The Americans are very intense. There is a lot of insistence that you work hard ALL THE TIME and NEVER GIVE IN, and PROTECT YOUR REPUTATION AT ALL COSTS, all of which is fine and good, if a bit myopic and terrifying.

Something that I and the angry advice columnists might agree on though, is the benefit of being a giver. Of course, when they talk about it they say, “IF YOU STOP THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF ALL THE TIME MAYBE YOU CAN MAKE US MORE MONEY,” said with a sneer and a chest bump to the other columnists. The angry advice columnists are very concerned with earning more money and do not think much of their young lawyer readers.

While I would decline the chest bump and the focus on material reward, the truth is that people who orient towards giving rather than taking generally have happier, more successful lives in the long-term. And they are this way not just because giving is by its nature good person territory, and they earn a shiny halo; they are this way because giving feels good.

Let me explain. Humans are social. We are hard-wired to care for needs other than our own, because humans need to care about each other for a group to survive. What this means is that it generally feels good to do something for someone else. It makes you feel connected, and if they are grateful it makes you feel liked and powerful. We get lovely, emotional rewards for giving.

I used to think that thinking of giving like this was wrong. I was raised Catholic, where there is a lot of focus on giving and a lot of admonishment for feeling good. But then I read Adam Grant’s book Givers and Takers, and Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. These books set out all the evidence for the richness and ease that come from being a giver (with boundaries, which I will get to).

Though these scientists wrote very nice books, the simplest citation of this principle came from Kristen Bell in a podcast.

Bell is an American actress who has starred in Veronica Mars, Frozen, and The Good Place. She also famously gives a lot of her time and money to charity, including helping homeless families move into new homes, spontaneously offering shelter to hurricane victims, and giving money to countless charities. When asked why she does it, she says she feels enormously fortunate in her life and a duty to share her good fortune. But she emphasises that she mostly does it because the giving makes her feel good. It makes her feel connected to people. She has anxiety and depression, and she finds that giving, especially her time, makes her feel better. For her, the simple fact that giving feels good is a good reason to do it.

There was a period, not as distant as you might think, when I wanted to be Kristen Bell, so I found this very persuasive.

Note, of course, that generosity runs the gamut from time and money given to charity, right through being thoughtful and warm to people, learning names, standing up for yourself or others, writing thank-you emails, pre-empting someone’s needs, being aware that someone is struggling and offering them a kind ear, affirming people’s work or courage or their own generosity, and any other big or small thing besides. It is not so much about resource distribution as it is a mindset of care for people.

All of this is subject to the giant caveat that successful givers have clear, robust, well-enforced boundaries, including being mindful of takers looking to exploit. Successful takers do not give indiscriminately. To be a successful giver is not to be weak or walked over, to give just because she was asked. (Equally, it is also not to stop being a giver when the occasional churlish person does ask or take too much.)

Let’s come back to the legal and work context. Law is a notoriously competitive world where the maxim “nice guys finish last” is often treated like law itself.

Adam Grant examined the idea of “nice guys finish last” and found that, often, they did. Givers who give indiscriminately, who are people pleasers without concern for their own needs, or who are not mindful of swindlers and quick to turn them down, will burn out eventually.

But givers also often finished first, as in, way out in front. The difference between the two categories was whether the givers had strong boundaries around their own needs and against exploiters, or whether their giving impulse, or people-pleasing habits, simply depleted everything they had over time.

These findings are reinforced in Brene Brown’s work on wholeheartedness. The people who were found to live wholehearted lives were people who were both generous, giving of their time and money and selves to others, and had strong boundaries around their self care and own needs.

A lot of people struggle with boundaries. I definitely do. The idea that my own needs are really important and I am allowed to meet them still feels a bit rude. I used to think if I had any capacity at all then I should be using that capacity to give, relentlessly, every second, and it was exhausting. I ended up giving less in the long run as my capacity dwindled away to nothing.

But I have noticed that the more boundaries I really stick in the ground and defend, the more space I have in my mind and schedule to give, and the better I feel all round. The old adage goes that you cannot pour from an empty vessel, but I also like to think that empty (or non-existent) vessels make pretty useless tea.

Living life from a place of generosity, including to yourself, is easier. It makes choices easier. It invites you to pay attention to others’ generosity and builds relationships of trust and care and lightness and affection. You don’t have to pay as much attention to score-keeping and cut-throat competition. The odd time when a taker wins instead of you is not such a big deal, because you make a priority of meeting your own needs. People respond to you more positively, and you feel good more often. You are playing the long game.

Over time, giving usually gets you more anyway, since people like giving to people who are themselves generous. Which, if I am being generous, is perhaps what all the angry advice columnists were trying to say.

Katie Cowan is a former lawyer. She is now a director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. Katie hosts the New Lawyer podcast and writes on matters affecting the legal profession.

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