Book Review- Why People Give: Interpreting Altruism, Ratna Vira, Suhasini Vira

Book – Why People Give: Interpreting Altruism

Authors – Ratna Vira, Suahasini Vira

Release Date – 1st July 2019

Genre – Social Science

Reading has always been one of my passions, but I had always been partial towards fiction. The thought of venturing into the non-fiction genre made me feel that I would be getting into a  dull and dry space. So it was always a  big no, no for me.  But then a few years ago, my perspective started changing as I  started exploring various topics and issues that could not be put in the form of a story but were far too informative and valuable to be missed/ignored.

And then Covid happened and with that came the lockdown. Like everyone else, my life went into the pause mode. I had to put my normal life on hold, which made me more aware of what was happening around me. My focus started shifting from me and my world to others and in particular to those who were enabling us to save ourselves. It made me think about the health workers, the policemen, the essential services providers who were working hard just so we could be safe and well and inside our homes.  Their tireless effort, selfless devotion made me realize what a self-absorbed existence we all lead. And as though because it was meant to be my eyes fell on this particular book that had been gifted to me by a dear friend which I had missed reading.  The topic drew me towards it and I had to pick it up.

The book has been written by the mother-daughter duo, Ratna Vira and Suhasini Vira, probably the first of a mother-daughter literary endeavour. The literary expertise of Ratna combined with the subject expertise of Suhasini has made this book a must-read for the young, the old and the millennials.

The book talks about altruism, a topic largely ignored by most of us but which in today’s times [even without the pandemic] is so relevant and necessary.  But caught up as we are in our selfish and self- absorbed lives we have no time/inclination to think about others or their welfare.  This book makes us think about what we have become in the pursuit of our materialistic existence and also tells us what we can do to rectify the situation if we have to save ourselves and people around us.

Altruism, as the dictionary says, refers to the fact of caring about the needs and happiness of other people more than your own. It is the space where from being a self-centred and selfish person you start becoming selfless, caring, considerate and compassionate. You start caring about the happiness of other people and in turn bring about happiness in your own, a tremendously evolved form of existence. So yes, the book is not something that will draw the casual reader to it, but a serious reader looking for meaningful writing will not want to miss this.

In a world torn by war, strife, struggle, violence and hatred this focus on altruism, the act of giving is like a breath of fresh air. It is an attempt to make people look beyond their lives and pay attention to those of the others. The authors have attempted to remind people to think about others, to give back to society, the community from which they are getting so much.

Though the message of the book is prescriptive and therefore its tone could have been preachy it thankfully isn’t like that at all.  Yes, the mother-daughter duo is telling us what to do with our lives to make them more meaningful, but their manner of doing it is not only different but refreshing too. To break the monotony of the message, they have interspersed the text with real-life stories which, apart from breaking the monotony, make the text relatable and real. There are so many instances in the book that show how small acts of charity, of altruism, can and have made a world of difference to people’s lives. And that makes the reader believe and understand that altruism can be made a part of their lives too.

The book also highlights that an act of altruism can not only bring happiness into the life of the recipient but in the life of the giver as well. It can bring about an untold amount of joy and satisfaction into the doer’s life. The book, a thoroughly researched piece of work, draws from the physical and social sciences to put its point across. It talks about the positive impact of an altruistic action on the giver and the recipient. One of the things that it talks about and something which I liked a lot was its reference to the ‘warm glow effect,’ the effect which a person experiences when they do charity or an act of kindness. According to the authors, it is an effect that lights up the giver from the inside and makes them feel wonderful. Unlike the feeling from a monetary benefit, the feeling from this is incredibly satisfying and long-lasting.

The positivity which comes from the book can make the reader very optimistic about life, about the world despite what the reality is.  A quote like,’ No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn’.  How beautiful is that!! Now if that doesn’t make you upbeat and confident about the future what will.

The book is quite informative, and the reader gets an opportunity to learn about many things. For instance, it talks about the difference between generosity and altruism.

I had no idea that these were two different things. As per the authors, the two differ in terms of the intention or the agenda behind them. According to them, the hidden agenda behind any act of generosity is self-interest, self- promotion, whereas altruism has no such plan. It is a purely selfless act done just for the benefit of someone else, someone who is not as fortunate as us. Quite a revelation!!

The book gives the reader a lot of food for thought. One of the things that I learnt was that in life, there are three kinds of happiness. There is a kind that one gets from a life which is pleasant where one has positive emotions and skills to amplify the emotions.  A second kind comes from a life of engagement, a life related to your work, your parenting, your love, your leisure. And the third is a meaningful life. Just the pursuit of pleasure does not contribute to life satisfaction. It is the pursuit of meaningful life which makes the most substantial contribution towards satisfaction followed by the search of engagement. And it is only when we have all the three types that our life can become full. The book even links life expectancy with positive emotions and emphasizes on the fact that a lot of positivity comes into your life when your soul is clean, your spirit is kind, and your intention is well-meaning.

Although the topic is pretty grim and the authors could have used a moralizing and sermonising tone to get the message across, they have refrained from doing that. While emphasizing on the grimness and the imperativeness of the issue,  they have made it simple and relatively easy for the reader to understand the message and motivated enough to incorporate some of the changes in their lives. The spirit is right, the intention is clear, and it is from the heart. And the research that has gone behind it makes it evident that there is a lot of substance in all the arguments that the book makes to drive the reader towards a more giving, caring and unselfish kind of existence.

It is a book that attempts to make a change in the way people look at the act of giving. It says that we can bring about this change and for that matter any change if we have the will. It reinforces the saying” Where there is a will, there is a way’. We don’t have to depend on the governments or any of the big players to bring about this change. We can be the change. And while the topic may not pull everyone towards the book, yet once you pick it up, you would want to finish it for the sheer joy of learning more about something that is currently much needed. And the simple language and the illustrative style makes it very real and relatable.

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Hello! I’m Sangeeta Relan. Aside from being an educationist teaching at the university level for the last 28 years, I have been a corporate wife and a mother to two boys who have now flown the nest. I love cooking, singing, travelling and exploring new places.

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