Photo by Eric.
What if I told you that there is one simple thing you, or anyone, can do to improve your health, emotional wellbeing, financial situation, and your relationships with friends, family, and co-workers?
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
It turns out this miraculous thing does exist and here it is: Be generous.
A new book by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson titled The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose confirms through an extensive research project something many Christians may already know from experience: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (1 Corinthians 9:6).
Smith and Davidson’s multidisciplinary study of roughly 2,000 Americans focused on various practices of generosity and how these behaviors (e.g. volunteering, donating money, random acts of kindness) impacted people’s lives. They discovered, rather counter-intuitively, that generosity really pays off. Generous people fared better across the board: they were happier, got sick or injured less, lived with a greater sense of purpose, experienced less depression, and so on.
But there are a few caveats. Upon further investigation, Smith and Davidson found that once-and-done acts of generosity did not necessarily produce the benefits described above. Instead, their study found that truly enriching generosity is a lifestyle rather than a gesture; it is more fundamentally about our orientation towards others than about balancing a ledger of giving versus receiving. As the authors explain it:
Generosity cannot be faked in order to achieve some other, more valued, self-serving end. Generosity itself needs to be desired. The good of other people must be what we want … Generosity must be authentic. It must actually be believed and practiced as a real part of one’s life. Only then might its well-being enhancing powers kick-in.
So which came first, the generosity or the benefits? Perhaps people who are already healthier, wealthier, and happier are more inclined to be generous than those who aren’t. Interestingly, Smith and Davidson build a strong argument in the book that generosity does indeed produce these benefits, rather than simply happening to appear alongside them.
During this season of Lent, many of us are focused on giving something up. While this can be a valuable practice for us personally, it often tends to be rather self-focused. Smith and Davidson’s research is a helpful reminder that perhaps we should be giving something away. Our observance of Lent provides us with a great opportunity to cultivate a spirit of generosity by building it into the daily rhythms and routines of our lives.
“Both generous and ungenerous people live lives that are less than ideal. But the generous posses an insight usually missing among the less generous. They know that they already have enough, and that clinging to what they have or clamoring for more will not bring about greater happiness. So they share some of their time, money, and care with others. They tend to see the beauty of life, the value of solidarity, and their connection to humanity. Their perspective tells them that the world, properly viewed, is a place of abundance.”