POINTS TO PONDER


WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GENEROUS?

Today, we are often called on to be generous because generosity is a virtue that all Christians should have. But too frequently, generosity is linked to financial endeavors when, in fact, it involves everything good we can contribute to our Society, Community, Church, and Family. In addition, research conducted over the past few decades provides strong evidence of intrinsic generous behaviors in children. This evidence suggests that generosity is deeply rooted in human psychology – that the instinct to help others is at least partially innate and not purely the product of social and cultural conditioning.

Both secularly and spiritually, generosity is being kind, selfless, and giving to others. Despite being an act to benefit others’ well-being, generosity also paradoxically increases our well-being. So being generous is a fantastic way to improve your mental health and being well. Imagine yourself being stingy and selfish. How should you spend your resources to maximize your happiness? Instead of buying more stuff for yourself, research suggests that giving to people or causes you care about is more likely to do the trick. Generosity not only helps others, but it also rewards yourself in measurable ways, so much so that it may even increase your lifespan. People seem to understand this intuitively.

A growing body of research has revealed numerous psychological and physiological benefits of giving, challenging common conceptions about the relationship between money and happiness. In 2008, for example, Norton and his colleagues conducted a study where they gave $5 or $20 to people and then instructed them to spend it either on themselves or someone else. Later that evening, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how they felt emotionally. The group that gave money to others reported feeling happier over the course of the day. What’s more, the results showed no emotional difference between people who received $5 and those who got $20. Being generous is what made them happy.

Generosity is a good thing for our mental health and well-being because when we give to someone we care about, we make it more likely for them to give to us, making us more likely to share with them, and so on. As a result, regions of our brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust light up, making us feel all warm and gooey inside. When it comes to improving our happiness and well-being. If someone else sees us do something kind or generous, it makes them more likely to be helpful. Even saying a simple “Thank you” can inspire both of you and those watching to be more generous. This is how generosity creates a ripple effect, helping us feel happier and less lonely.

Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion in Society (CSRS) envisions generosity as “the disposition and practice of freely giving of one’s financial resources, time, and talents, [including], for example, charitable financial giving, volunteering, and the dedication of one’s gifts for the welfare of others or the common good.” While the term generosity is shared as a general descriptor in the literature on social behavior, it has yet to be conceptualized, let alone systematically addressed in research. Like the CSRS and Merriam-Webster, we see generosity as unique. It is the habit of giving, or the quality of being “generous” (i.e., willing to share and give, not selfish, characterized by a noble, forgiving, and kind spirit, generous). In other words, it is something that, while perhaps not manifested in a single long-term behavior, is often believed as something good to express consistently throughout life. As such, generosity is distinct from mere prosocial behavior – a line of inquiry heavily pursued by psychologists – and deserves its theoretical conceptualization and further consideration in future research

A few weeks ago, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, [1] inspired by the holiday frenzy, pondered the hows and whys of gift-giving. He offers a behavioral economics view that challenges the rational economic contention that gift-giving is an irrational dilemma. What he said should bring to mind the story that always epitomized the spirit of gifts and generosity: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Only a few pages long, the account may be O. Henry’s most famous, its title almost a byword for a particular type of present. Say it, and chances are people will at once realize just what kind of gift you mean.

A gift that embodies quality over quantity, the value of thought over any amount of expenditure. A gift that puts the mere mention of a Holiday Wish List to shame. As O. Henry writes, “Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on…. the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.[2] Generous behavior is also known to increase happiness, which could motivate generosity.

Science writer covering psychology, neuroscience, and health Zara Abrams says that being kind is the right thing to do – it’s also good for our physical and mental health. Psychologists have found that performing acts of generosity boosts happiness and well-being, linking it to physical health benefits, including lower blood pressure.[3] It has been proven that small actions, such as holding the door for a stranger, petting an animal, bringing coffee to a colleague, and larger favors, such as helping a friend move, can have a big impact, said Sonja Lyubomirsky.[4] In addition, prosocial behavior toward friends, strangers, and oneself – and even observing or recalling kind acts – has been shown to increase well-being.[5]

Professor of Psychology Lara Aknin says that not all acts of generosity are created equal. Giving directly to a person or proxy – for instance, donating face-to-face to a charity rather than contributing online or taking a friend out to dinner rather than sending them a meal – offers an opportunity for social connectedness that’s particularly beneficial.[6]When people give in more socially connected or relational ways, that seems to unlock these emotional rewards better,” she said.

But what does the Bible say about generosity?

Wise King Solomon stated that some people give generously and gain more; others refuse to give and end up with less. So, give freely, and you will profit. Help others, and you will gain more for yourself.[7] And later on, he says that giving help to the poor is like loaning money to the Lord. He will pay you back for your kindness.[8]

But Jesus put it another way; He taught that whoever helps any little child because they are His followers will get a reward, even if they only give them a cup of cold water.[9] And on another occasion, our Lord promised that you would receive if you are generous to others. You will be given much. It will be poured into your hands – more than you can hold. You will be given so much that it will spill into your lap. The way you give to others is how God will give to you.[10]

Also, the Apostle Paul spoke on generosity, saying the one who plants few seeds will have a small harvest. But the one who plants generously will have a big harvest. So, each one of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give. You should not give if it makes you unhappy or if you feel forced to give. God loves those who are happy to give. [11]

Paul wrote young Timothy, telling him to give this command to those rich with the things of this world. Tell them not to be proud. Tell them to hope in God, not their money. You cannot trust money, but God takes care of us richly. He gives us everything to enjoy. So, tell those who are rich to do good – to be generous in good works. And tell them they should be happy to give and ready to share. By doing this, they will be saving up a treasure for themselves. And that treasure will be a strong foundation on which their future life is built. So, they will be able to have a life that is true life.

And the Apostle John wrote his Christian community, telling them that believers who are rich enough to have all the necessities of life see a fellow believer who is poor and does not have even basic needs. What if the rich believer does not help the poor one? Then it is clear that God’s love is not in that person’s lack of generosity.[12]


[1] Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. 

[2] Henry, O., The Gift of the Magi, pp. 4, 6

[3] Curry, O. S., et al., Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 76, 2018; Hui, B. P. H., et al., Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 146, No. 12, 2020)

[4] Sonja Lyubomisky, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Activities and Well-Being Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside.

[5] Rowland, L. & Curry, O. S., The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 159, No. 3, 2019; the Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 1, 202; Emotion, Vol. 16, No. 6, 2016

[6] Lara Aknin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who directs the Helping and Happiness Lab.

[7] Proverbs 11:24-25

[8] Ibid. 19:17

[9] Matthew 10:42

[10] Luke 6:38

[11] 2 Corinthians 9:6-7

[12] 1 John 3:17

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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