Jenny Santi, author of The Giving Way to Happiness, discusses the importance of philanthropy — especially from the celebrities we idolize.

As we venture into the most giving time of year, it’s important to remember what you can do for other people. Incidentally, philanthropy can also benefit you, too.

About ‘The Giving Way to Happiness’

We often focus on how our gifts can help those in need. But the act of giving actually improves our own lives as well. In The Giving Way to Happiness, Jenny Santi overturns conventional thinking about what it takes to be happy by revealing how giving to others — whether in the form of money, expertise, time, or love — has helped people from all walks of life find purpose and joy. Drawing on the wisdom of great thinkers past and present, as well as cutting-edge scientific research, Santi makes an eloquent and passionate case that oftentimes the answers to the problems that haunt us, and the key to the happiness that eludes us, lie in helping those around us.

This book is filled with inspiring stories told firsthand by Academy Award winner Goldie Hawn, Noble Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, philanthropist Richard Rockefeller, environmentalist Philippe Cousteau, activist Ric O’Barry, bestselling author Isabel Allende, ALS survivor Augie Nieto, and many others from all over the world. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they have all found unexpected happiness and fulfillment through giving. This book tells us not just how they changed the world but also how their acts changed their very own lives.

the giving way to happiness

Interview with Jenny Santi

You’ve encountered many philanthropic celebrities. Can you tell us one of your favorite stories?

The story of Czech model Petra Nemcova beautifully illustrates how giving can help us find renewed strength amidst the most difficult circumstances. Petra was vacationing in Khao Lak, Thailand in December 2004, with her fiancé Simon when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. Simon was swept away by the current and never seen again; while Petra broke her pelvis and was told she might never walk again.

Barely a year after the tsunami, and still recovering from her physical and emotional wounds, guess what she did? She went back to Thailand. She set up the Happy Hearts Fund with the vision of rebuilding schools and the lives of young victims of natural disasters. She told me that by giving, “you can heal faster emotionally, but also physically. You can have an impact on many lives and you can bring joy to the lives of others. There’s a selfish element in it, really. When we make someone happy, we become even happier.”

Do you know of any fans who have been inspired to give by their favorite celebrities giving?

I’ve personally been inspired by so many celebrities!

There is a trend in pop-culture now where groups of fans are giving money in support of charities championed by their favorite TV shows, movie franchises, bands, etc. Can you speak to that?

It’s great that celebrities are using their fame for social good. If you have found someone particularly inspiring and feel compelled to take action, make it your choice. Ask yourself, is this a cause that feels truly important to you? If it does, then get informed, get connected, and get to work. It will make the world a better place, and make you feel better too.

Do you think the sense of community and camaraderie in giving along with other fans makes people happier or is it the act of giving itself?

The sense of community and camaraderie in giving along with other fans definitely helps people stay inspired, passionate and committed to the cause over the long haul. It is incredibly helpful to surround yourself with people you can relate with, especially when the cause that you’re addressing is particularly problematic.

Related: Chris Evans visits children’s hospital in Captain America suit, Chris Pratt hands out Star-Lord action figures

captain america star lord charity

Credit: Seattle Children’s Hospital

Do you think this trend will continue to grow?

Yes, indeed. We have entered an era in which it is “cool” to give. The zeitgeist has shifted from “greed is good” to “giving is good.”

What are some ideas for others hoping to give around the upcoming holidays?

Take some time during the holidays to reflect and ask yourself – what are you passionate about? Our passion should be the foundation for our giving. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. It’s only natural that we will care about this and not so much about that, and that’s okay. It should not be simply a matter of choosing the right thing, but also a matter of choosing what is right for us.

To identify your passion, ask yourself these questions: What experiences have shaped your life? When you were in school, what did you most enjoy studying? What is your greatest accomplishment, your greatest loss? What keeps you awake at night? What brings you to tears, makes you angry, or moves you?

Is there an obligation for those who are famous to use that fame as a platform for charities and giving in general?

Anyone who gives merely out of a sense of obligation, or because they have been coerced and guilt-tripped into it, will most likely feel physically and emotionally depleted by their giving in the long haul. I don’t think giving should come out of a sense of obligation, rather be founded on our passion.

Does giving need to be incentivized in order for most people to do it, or are we compelled to give just for the sake of giving?

Experiments show evidence that the “joy of giving” has a biological basis in the brain. Altruism is hardwired in the brain and is pleasurable. Through fMRI technology, we now know that when we give, two brain reward systems work together: the midbrain VTA, which is the same part stimulated by food & sex; as well as the subgenual area, which is the area stimulated when humans see babies and romantic partners.

Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival is to take care of others. We have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate.

Related: Johnny Depp visits children’s hospital in full Jack Sparrow costume
johnny depp children's hospital

Credit: Children’s Hospital Foundation

What would you say about the critique that some celebrities only give to ‘look good’?

I would rather see them do it because they want to feel good.

Who are some of the most philanthropic celebrities that you’ve come across?

In the world of film: Christopher Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor
In sports: Wayne Gretzky
In music: Bono, Michael Jackson
In royalty: Queen Rania of Jordan
In fashion: Christy Turlington Burns

About Jenny Santi

Jenny Santi is a trusted philanthropy advisor to some of the world’s most generous philanthropists and celebrity activists, serving clients including an Oscar-winning actress and signatories of the Buffett-Gates Giving Pledge. Her new book The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving explores the power of giving to help people find purpose, have meaningful careers, recover from trauma, form closer family bonds, and find significance beyond material success. She was born and raised in Manila in the Philippines; has lived in London, the French Loire Valley and Singapore, and is now based in New York.

Who are some of the most giving celebrities you love?

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