English writer Aldous Huxley once said, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” But as I get older, I’m find that I am taking fewer things for granted, and I’m having a conscious awakening to the treasures that exist in the most average moments and places. The grass seems greener; the sky seems brighter; the air seems fresher; the water in streams dances more gracefully. There seems to be an emerging sense of appreciation that amplifies a sense of awe in the simplest pleasures of life.
There is the Japanese term – “on.” It means the obligation we assume when we receive gifts or favors. It encompasses a deep desire to repay others for what we’ve been given. It’s more than just a feeling of thankfulness – it’s experiencing an actual, deep desire to give back.
Only recently have I become aware of the number of places where the concept of “giving back” is showing up outside the expected charity events. Giving back appears to be a critical ingredient in sustaining meaningful human behavior change.
I am increasingly of the belief that creating time to be grateful and actually giving back are not actions of obligation, but actions of sustaining change. For example, we are working with the California Mentorship Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of the approximately 17 million adolescents who wake up every day without caring adults. From this organization, we’ve learned that the first way to make a powerful impact in the life of an adolescent is to care, the second way is to help them create a “life plan” so they can captain their own life, and the third is to enable them to give back. Giving back to others creates a sense of gratitude focused on others, and a purpose for young people sustaining their own behavior change.
We also work with Gary Gray, who has been at the forefront of the science of human body movement. Gary is passionate about changing the nation’s problem of obesity, especially in children. He says that for children to truly take charge of their bodies, they first must understand that they are all “natural athletes.” Next, they need to comprehend the literacy of body movement, just like a language. Third, once they master being an athlete themselves, they sustain the change in their lives by giving back to other children who are starting the process.
In recent work with leaders to sharpen their skills in leading strategic change in their organizations, they realize that they can sustain their change efforts by giving back. This could take many forms, but in the end, it’s about giving to others that same sense of immense untapped capability that resides in each of us to be the change that we expect in others.
It’s no coincidence that wherever major problems are being addressed and solved, a sense of gratitude and the desire to give back is an essential ingredient to sustaining meaningful life change.