As I mentioned previously, a study out of Notre Dame University by Smith and Davidson made a clear connection between generosity to both personal health and happiness. While the authors are clear that there could be a number of factors in play, in general, people who are generous tend to be both healthier and happier. My sense is this: when people understand that there’s much more to life than walling themselves off from others, they experience in big and small ways God’s intended purpose for life.
What is a generous person then? Smith and Davison use this definition:
“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.”1
While people might associate generosity with money, it encompasses much more than one’s financial resources. In one’s abundance of resources – possessions, emotional support, and expertise or time to help someone, the capacity to welcome others and include them in, even the capacity to forgive – generosity is being “open-handed” knowing that if God has given to us a super-abundance, it is not meant to be hoarded. Resources come to us and, at least some, are meant to go through us to bless others for their good. Gregory Spencer in Awakening the Quieter Virtues, writes,
“Generosity is the predisposition to love openhandedly”2
In short, generosity as a person’s character is certainly an action, but it’s more like a heart-condition. Literally, it could be thought of as the “space” in a person’s heart for another. Like Spencer’s quote, the virtue of generosity was so closely linked with love that generous expressions were really a reflection of how much room a person had in their heart to bless or include another. For example, hospitality is not just limited to opening up your home and entertaining. Hospitality is a picture of how much capacity you have in your heart to welcome in another person. When a person’s heart is small and cluttered, how easy it is to quickly conclude that one “can’t” and default to protection mode.
If generosity is heart condition, let me share two thoughts of application. First, a person can give but not be generous. Take for instances, finances. A person can give money but if generosity is a heart-condition, one can give without being generous. We’ve all heard, “You need to give until it hurts.” That’s simply not motivating. Generous giving is really a picture of one’s heart and the “space” that one has for someone else, a big Kingdom of God kind of thing, etc. This is why generosity can’t strictly be measured by amount. The widow who gives a mite can actually have more space in her heart for others and God than the person who gives a lot of money.
Second, it seems to me that one reason why people are not generous might be because they are deeply insecure and need to possess in order to try and keep their heart full. Their resources – time, expertise or knowledge, their ability to welcome in others, their finances – are to be protected because if they were gone there would be little left to actually fill their heart. In other words our lack of generosity is a picture of how empty we truly are. Or maybe people are not generous because they aren’t happy enough. They don’t have enough deep joy that they need to protect their life.
One can become a “miser” by keeping their heart protected. However in the process, they will habit-form character traits that are the opposite of generosity – stinginess, coveting, greed, and hoarding. It’s no coincidence that the word “miser” is related to the word “miserable.” We want then to become generous people because while it has personal, tangible benefits (healthy, happy), it’s wise to become generous because it will enlarge our hearts. As Cole Carnesecca wrote,
“[Dr. Suess’] Grinch always had the capacity to be generous and happy, but his lack of generosity resulted in his heart being, ‘two sizes too small.'”3
1 Christian Smith and Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity
2 Gregory Spencer, Awakening the Quieter Virtues
3 Cole Carnesecca, The Paradox of Generosity, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/paradox-of-generosity