On his tenth birthday last year, Matthew Sproule decided to make a change. The fourth grader, who attends the American School of Dubai, was keen to celebrate the occasion, but he also wanted to give back to others.
A week before his birthday on April 13, he sent an email to his friends and family asking them to send him the money they would like to spend on his gift because he wanted to donate the entire amount to a charity in Ethiopia.
Isn't that a bit unusual for a ten year old? Matthew doesn't think so. "My parents [Gwen and Greg] taught me right from wrong and have always encouraged me to feel for others.
"One day, while I was at the environmental club in school, my friends and I started talking about the many difficulties that children in Africa face. I started thinking about what I could do to help. My mum suggested that I donate all the money that I receive from friends and relatives as birthday gifts to a charity of my choice. I loved her idea."
Matthew ended up with a princely sum of Dh1,000, which he sent to an orphanage in Africa.
"It felt good," he says simply. And he's quite certain that he will make this a habit. "I'm going to pick out different charities in different parts of the world and keep giving."
It takes a while for it to sink in that you're talking to a ten-year-old, but once it does it makes you realise that nothing is impossible.
Speaking to Matthew certainly had an effect on me. As I recalled my own recent birthday celebration, my mind began churning over the expenditure: Dh100 for the cake, Dh200 and then some on the dress, over Dh100 at the salon and about Dh500 on a dinner for a few close friends and family. I didn't even need to calculate the total figure; I already felt deeply troubled by guilt. And consider all the elaborate preparations that we undertake to make a celebration worthwhile.
Every year we're bound to organise a big budget birthday celebration for ourselves or a loved one. We prepare a long guest list, spend hours agonising over which type of confetti to choose, fret over the number of candles we need to light up the enormous birthday cake and recruit friends to blow up the balloons.
Then, of course, there's the food: the yummy goodies that we eat, leave behind on the plate, or throw into the overflowing garbage bin... You know what I'm talking about.
When I was growing up, my gran's birthday was a big deal, but it was a day that we dreaded. On this day, all the helpers would be given the day off. Then, like a blithe spirit conjuring up a magical treat, in a large pot Gran would cook up the most voluminous meal that could feed an entire village. Nothing fancy, mind you. Just a simple dish of rice and lentils with a bare hint of spice, and laden with love.
She would personally serve this dish to anyone invited to her feast. Being young and possessing tastebuds that demanded more than warm gruel, we children would sulk and whimper, but I don't remember being given anything else to eat.
For some reason, Matthew's act of birthday kindness stuck with me. So I got on my laptop to share his story with my friends by email. Didn't they think this kind of a birthday celebration was something to shout about from the rooftops?
Surprise! Within days my inbox was flooded with mail, ideas, smiley icons and cyber high-fives. Every one of them loved the idea.
Emily, an Australian, wrote to me to say that birthdays always signal a new beginning. It's an opportunity to look at the world with fresh vigour.
"I hadn't thought of doing this for my birthday, but now is just as good a time as any to begin," she wrote.
She went on to share with me her experience of celebrating Christmas differently. "We are a small group of six girlfriends who get together to celebrate Christmas each year with a meal and to exchange gifts. We began this ritual 20 years ago and we haven't missed it once. Initially we used to buy each other small gifts. About 12 years ago, we started buying one gift each to give to a different person within the group.
"Each of us live very privileged lives in Australia - there's plenty of food, clean water, shelter, employment, a loving family and friends… These are things we expect and, at times, may even take for granted. We live in such a materialistic world and some of us are upset at the amount of money wasted on consumerism in our country (and unfortunately each of us is guilty of it to a certain degree). "So this year we celebrated by sharing a meal, but chose to give what we would have spent on gifts to a charity in Ethiopia. We hope our small gift will make a difference to those who can truly benefit from it.
"We all want to do more to help but sadly don't know how to take the big plunge."
A young and bubbly wealth manager, Awwad doesn't believe in throwing a birthday party for herself, although she does so for her husband and son. Awwad, whose birthday falls on September 9, says birthday parties are a way for people to thank each other for the occasions they have been invited to. "It's almost incumbent to reciprocate with a greater degree of lavishness. But the sight of so much food going to waste always depresses me."
Although she prefers not to make her donations public, she believes there's a lot of truth in the cliché that there's more happiness in giving than in receiving. "The times we live in have taught me a lot. I have seen people go through very hard times.I go to the flea markets set up in various parks and sell my branded stuff to people who can't afford to buy it at the steep prices they are retailed for in shops. A lot of people can't afford to buy them at those prices, but feel happier paying something for it instead of getting it as a donation."
"It's important to have peace of mind when you put your head down on the pillow," she says. That's something her parents told her when she was a child.
So what's her idea of celebrating a birthday with purpose? Awwad has come up with all sorts of creative projects that she's vowed to incorporate into her next birthday.
- "My birthday falls in September, so it's timed perfectly with the reopening of schools after the summer break. I'd love to organise a book fair in my garden. I would invite people to buy books and use the money raised to purchase books for children of families who are not well-to-do."
- "I would like to pledge to work as a volunteer in countries that require assistance for six months."
- "Every birthday from now on I'll ask my friends to give me cash gifts which I will donate to a chosen charity each year. Of course I will do my research to ensure that it's put to proper use."
- "I've done my Masters in Theatre and it's my dream to produce plays. For one of my birthdays, I will produce a play and have a grand opening. The proceeds from it will be donated to a charity."
- "As a mother, I think a lot about underprivileged children. I would like to work towards a method where I can set aside a decent sum that would go to a cause that can help such children."
- "On one of my birthdays, I'll ask my friends to think of five people whom they believe need a gift. I will ask my friends to buy the gift and I'll make sure that the chosen people get it the following day."
- "I believe in the importance of insurance and have asked my husband to get coverage that includes critical illness. As a birthday gift, I would like to organise a seminar so I can raise awareness among my friends about critical illness and how much it can affect families - in the unfortunate event that they or their spouse ever be exposed to it."
Lucy Chuang is a Swedish national of Chinese origin who runs a language teaching centre at a local school in Dubai. Chuang doesn't want to sound pompous by making big commitments. "I always felt throwing parties was a waste of money, but never really thought to what extent my little contribution - in terms of logistical help or money - could make a difference." She has often thought of ‘doing her bit', but has never linked it to her birthday.
Now that the seed is planted, it doesn't take her long to get excited at the many possibilities. She spells out nine ways she would like to contribute to the community when she celebrates her birthday on July 20.
- "I have two older sisters and one of them is mentally challenged. I would love to set up a service or fund for the disabled. Last year, we organised a food fair in Guangzhou, China. The money we collected was donated to a school for special needs. I'd love to do something similar for people with special needs in Dubai."
- "One of the poorest sections in China is situated in the Western region, especially the Gansu and Ningxia province where people struggle to survive on a daily basis. I'd like to invite my friends here as volunteers to help these people, be it through education, providing food or health services. Even short periodic visits can make a difference."
- "Clean drinking water is a problem in many countries. I went to the International Desalination Association's conference here recently and would seriously like to contribute to a fund that will go towards providing clean water."
- "My housemaid in Dubai, Ollie, is from the Philippines and I have decided that I will pledge money towards educating her 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter."
- "The recent typhoon in the Philippines has left so many people homeless. I'd like to send money to a charity that is helping them rebuild their lives and homes."
Krietzberg and her family, who live in Marlboro, US, have always been very sensitive to the needs of poor, hungry children around the world. They have encouraged their kids, Ian, Josh and Lily, to regularly save up their pennies for charity.
On Lily's seventh birthday, Krietzberg said to her daughter, "You know, there are so many children out there who don't even get cake - let alone receive a present." Lily came up with ‘Birthday Buddies'. They contacted social workers and shelters close to their home and began collecting money to hand over to the people who ran these homes.
The money was used for parties for homeless children. Nothing extravagant, just paper plates, gifts not more than $20, a cake and some balloons. So far, they have celebrated about seven birthdays at the Spring House Transitional Home for Homeless Women and Children.
Being altruistic has great health benefits. When you give to others, the ‘feel good' effect has a positive impact on your self-esteem and that becomes the source of inner happiness.
Benefits of giving
You can either sit someone down and spend an evening trying to explain the meaning of altruism or cut to the chase and say: "Doing good makes you feel good."
That is the simplest message that needs to be imparted.
Dr Melanie Schlatter, a health psychologist from the Well Woman Clinic in Dubai, espouses altruism and it's not a difficult word or concept.
She firmly believes in the power of good to make good happen in return.
Imagine altruism to be a ball. The harder you throw it against a wall, the faster it bounces back to you.
And it's fun. Dr Schlatter has seen clients who tell her this and quotes international research on the therapeutic effects of giving.
"Psychological research delineates three factors which contribute to altruism - empathy, helpfulness and opportunism. Empathy is one's ability to truly put yourself in the shoes of another person - to really be able to feel what they may be going through. If one can experience this, then research shows they will be highly motivated to help that person as a result. The key is that the motivation to help someone must be genuine.
"Selfless opportunism, as it is called, must not be enabled through guilt (for instance, I had better do X or they will think badly of me) or contingent upon reward or recognition (for example, I will do X only if she does Y in return).
"The ramifications of altruism are numerous, no matter how small your act of kindness - even if it is holding a door open for someone, calling a friend to say you are thinking of them, or donating a few household goods to the needy. Not only do you get to feel good through a rush of endorphins and a long-lasting period of calmness afterwards, but in turn, the person being helped may learn from your kindness, feel good too, and then ‘pay it forward'.
There is also the undeniable feeling of self-fulfilment - that you are personally contributing to the greater wellbeing of people around you - and research does support the notion that improved psychological and physical health are experienced by the more altruistic person - no matter what age you are."