It's funny, but stories about Oprah Winfrey often show up here in the Foolish archives -- mostly because she can and often does make a real difference to some companies' sales and brand awareness. It's an understatement to say that Oprah's "influential" -- corporations covet a plug on her show. After all, she helped make Deckers' (NYSE:DECK) UGG boots hot with a mere mention, for example. Plus, she gives away a lot of cool stuff to audience members -- think cars (GM's (NYSE:GM) Pontiacs)) or Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPods a couple years ago. She even made Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina a bestseller again, and that's no easy task.

A recent giveaway to her studio audience was in a different vein, however. She handed out $1,000 debit cards sponsored by Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) to each member of the audience, with the caveat that the recipients had to give the money, in whatever denominations they pleased, to their favorite charities, or to individuals in need (not their relatives). She provided Sony (NYSE:SNE) video recorders so that recipients could record their creative ways of spreading happiness through these gifts, for possible airing on an upcoming show.

I thought that was a great idea, and was a little shocked to see some snarky commentary in some news articles and in the blogosphere. (For example, the insinuation that Oprah's pre-Halloween giveaway wasn't a treat but a trick, and that the studio audience was, or at the very least should be, unenthused to find out they weren't getting some exorbitant gift for themselves, since Oprah does so often give treats to the audience, resulting in those well-known scream-and-cry-fests). To imply that that studio audience had somehow gotten "gypped" since they walked away empty-handed, at least in a material sense, was a level of cynicism I found rather unexpected and unwelcome.

However, it also made me think that maybe that attitude floating around out there is exactly why it's important for Oprah to give a jump-start to the idea of giving -- maybe it's a good idea to remind some people that helping others really is a great feeling, and often far more emotionally rewarding than constantly coveting money and/or status symbols for one's own gain alone. Not to mention that in the realm of personal responsibility, it's not always somebody else who should help -- the government, maybe, or the rich neighbor who has the better car, or the superstar CEO with billions. Every one of us can help in many ways.

You can't take it with you
When Oprah gave away the debit cards, she dubbed the event her "favorite giveaway ever." She said, "I can honestly say that every gift I've ever given has brought at least as much happiness to me as it has to the person I've given it to. That's the feeling I want to pass on to you."

Maybe there is a bit of irony in the fact that a woman who is worth billions would give away money in order for the recipients to give it away again in turn. However, there's nothing wrong with Oprah trying to share the spirit behind giving.

And she's certainly not alone -- giving is in this year. Several influential financial high-rollers have recently announced they're putting their money into charitable, philanthropic, or socially progressive causes. Warren Buffett made a big splash with his recent decision to give most of his billions to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Virgin's Richard Branson is making a high-profile infusion of cash into renewable energy. The Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) guys have similar ideas with their new for-profit philanthropic effort. Some of these initiatives do still have a profitability motive attached, but they all share the same spirit of directing funds to ways to try to make the world a better place for more people.

As much as Fools strive to secure financial independence and better our lives, it's worth pondering exactly what that means, and what really makes one's life better. For some of us, a big component of financial independence is ensuring that we can not only have a comfortable life, meet all our obligations, have some fun once in a while, and retire well, but also help our families and loved ones, and sometimes branch out to help needy people in our communities. After all, studies have shown that once our basic needs are fulfilled, money doesn't really make us happy. Whether we can help others with a short-term solution (donations to provide hot turkey dinners for Thanksgiving for the needy) or a long-term one (providing the means through which such people can get back on their feet and become self-sustaining), there's real emotional benefit to such selfless actions. I can't say that there's any problem with giving being this year's "in" thing.

Pay it forward
Oprah's gesture comes at an opportune time, because the holiday season is upon us, and that's the season when many people do ponder the age-old ideal: It's better to give than to receive. Getting isn't everything. When you have the means, however small or large, giving back to people and communities is about doing good and feeling good.

Of course, we didn't receive those $1,000 cards from Oprah, but it doesn't hurt to reflect on what we ourselves can do, small or large -- whatever's within our means, even without a benefactress like Oprah.

Plus, can you really resist wondering where you would direct that money, if it were you? Do you have a favorite charitable organization that you support the whole year round, one that perhaps isn't even well known?

If you do, please let us know, because this is the time of year when our Foolanthropy charitable effort goes full-steam ahead. Through Foolanthropy, our interactive and cooperative online charity drive, Fools can nominate organizations that help others, whether it's through straight-up charitable giving or organizations that help struggling communities transform themselves into prosperous ones. (Read about the details -- including some donation-matching from the Fool -- here.)

Take a tip from Oprah. Giving -- it's good stuff.

The Motley Fool's annual Foolanthropy campaign has begun! Every year, discussion board participants gather to nominate and support worthy charities with diverse missions. To learn more, take a look at the opening remarks from fellow Fools David Gardner and Carrie Crockett.

Deckers is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick.

Alyce Lomax doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.