The Paradox of Generosity

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51vEbhBQ-yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One of the least talked about virtues these days seems to be generosity. Maybe people are a bit reluctant to talk about it because the fear is the conversation will drift towards money. It starts off well and good but we all know that talk of generosity is intended to lead to how much you are going to give. How should we view the virtue of generosity? Is generosity something meant for only a few people to practice? Is it simply for those who have the “gift”?

A 2014 book by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson offers an undated, straightforward picture why generosity is a key character trait for you to continually practice. First, a couple of definitions. The authors define generosity as:

“The virtue (the character trait formed in you) of giving good things to others freely and abundantly… It is a disposition to give liberally and an actual practice of giving liberally.”

Generous acts are not just giving something away but giving away an abundance of a resource (money, time, attention, help, hospitality) that is for the well-being of another. So you can see that generosity is closely connected to love.

Second, it’s good to understand what a “paradox” is. A paradox is by definition, something that appears to be contradictory but upon closer examination it proves to be more true than you initially thought. What then is the paradox of generosity?

“In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our lives. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing…Or stated in the negative, by grasping onto what we currently have, we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to take care of others, we do not properly take care of ourselves.” 

The study done by the authors shows that the adage in giving you receive. But it’s more than that! In giving away we receive something of incredible importance – we flourish (or do well) in life!

What’s helpful about the book is the authors don’t center the discussion of generosity solely on the issue of giving money. They also include generosity as demonstrated by volunteering (serving the community), relational generosity (being generous with one’s attention and emotions in relationships with other people), neighborly generosity (hospitality and neighborly expressions of care). Their findings? While many Americans are very generous, many think themselves to be more generous than they really are with a large amount of Americans being ungenerous not just in financial giving but in every other area measured as well. It turns out that habit forming the character trait of being ungenerous (Stingy? Selfishly hoarding? Greedy?) actually ends up harming the person. Based on Smith’s and Davidson’s exhaustive study, in what ways then does generosity enhance people’s lives?

  1. Generosity often fosters and reinforces positive emotions and reduces negative emotions in givers, which tends to lead to greater happiness.
  2. Generosity often triggers chemical systems in the brain and body that increase pleasure and experiences of reward, reduce stress, and suppress pain, which lead to greater happiness and health
  3. Generosity increases a person’s ability to choose rightly and confidence to act, which tends to enhance happiness and health.
  4. Generosity often creates ways to tell us who we are – where we came from, what we are supposed to do in life, and what life is all about –  which tend to lead to greater happiness and health
  5. Generosity tends to reduce self-absorption, which tends to produce greater happiness and health
  6. Practicing generosity requires and reinforces a person’s understanding that they live in a world of abundance and blessing, which itself also increases happiness and health
  7. Generosity tends to build relationships with others, which tends strongly to lead to greater happiness and health (a side truth here is that generosity actually enhances families and marriages)
  8. Generosity tends to promote increased learning about the world which leads to greater happiness and health
  9. Generosity tends to increase the giver’s physical activity, which usually leads to greater happiness and health (here the authors use the example of working with others to build a Habitat home)

As you can see, the list of benefits is long with the conclusion that generous people have access to greater happiness (the biblical language is “how blessed”) and health! Or stated in a negative way, for a person to act repeatedly in an ungenerous way, it’s to their detriment. The paradox works not only in the positive way for the giver but also in the negative way: For a person to hang on to what they have, they end up shortchanging themselves. But are we to be generous people only because we profit from it? What we will find is there’s more to generosity that’s going on at the level of the heart! Stay tuned for the second part!

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