When my son was six years old, he told me: “I want to give my friend George some of my Star Wars Legos.” I replied, “That’s great!” Then he said, “But there’s sin in my heart that doesn’t want me to give them!”
That’s a universal dilemma, don’t you think? We know generosity is a good thing—in principle. It’s the doing part we often struggle with. However generosity, when consistently practiced, is actually a source of health and happiness untapped by most Americans.
That’s the message of The Paradox of Generosity, a new book by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson that presents their fascinating research on generosity. Their 2010 interviews with nearly 2,000 Americans revealed that:
- Happiness comes from giving, not getting
Everyone would rather be happy than sad, right? So we seek happiness where we expect to find it. Unfortunately, too many of us think material wealth is the source of happiness, so it eludes us.
As King Midas learned, chasing after possessions cannot lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact. To be happy we must commit to giving, not just getting.
Smith and Davison consistently found that people reported being “very happy” more often if they give away 10 percent of their income, volunteer five hours per month, or frequently help their neighbors. Those who did not do those things were more likely to report being “very or somewhat unhappy” in life.
One of the book’s in-depth profiles is about the Arnolds. Devoted to their own self-interest, the Arnolds don’t ask others for help, and therefore feel no obligation to use their “limited” resources to help others. “Live and let live” is their functional motto.
The Arnolds “regularly and unhappily borrow money at high interest rates to appease their quest for better and more.” Interviewed soon after installing a new deck, the Arnolds say they want to add a swimming pool to their backyard. “But you have a neighborhood pool, right?” the authors ask. Mr. Arnold replied, “We have a neighborhood pool, but we want a pool on our property…because it’s private.”
The Arnolds remind me of Jesus’ parable about the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. Not content with the wealth and barns he already had, he planned to tear them down and build even larger ones—hoarding the bumper crop God blessed him with rather than giving the surplus away. Why? Because that man’s goal in life was to: “have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:20-21)
Although The Paradox of Generosity quotes the Buddha and numerous proverbs from various cultures, I found that the Bible’s wisdom predates and affirms their research repeatedly.
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. (1 Timothy 6:17)
- Generosity is a win-win
As defined by Smith and Davidson, generosity is “the active practice of purposefully giving away moderate portions of dearly held resources. That is the basis upon which we categorize people as generous or ungenerous.”
On the face of it you might think that “donating one’s own limited time, energy, and attention to someone else’s concerns represents a loss.” Instead, Smith and Davidson found that “generous people tend to receive back goods that are even more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth.”
In contrast to this, the authors observe that: “personal autonomy, self-preservation, and rugged individualism are key and sacred words in the vocabulary of the ungenerous people we interviewed.” In other words, people are less generous if they make their own security and comfort their highest priorities.
- Generous people lead healthier lives
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that generous people have a more positive view of themselves and others, and are more optimistic about the possibility of change. The ungenerous, on the other hand, typically do not believe they have an ability to affect change, either personally or socially.
Ungenerous Americans are not as happy, healthy, or living life with as much purpose. Ungenerous people are less likely to believe they can accomplish much in life and seem largely uninterested in personal growth. As a group they are less physically healthy and more pessimistic about their problems.
Generous people have challenges in life and are frequently busy, but they are less stressed out. The generous are also less likely to suffer depression or anxiety, and more frequently eat home-cooked meals with other people.
In other words, generous living is part of the fabric of life. Smith and Davidson discovered, therefore, that only generous practices had substantive positive effects on the giver. Being an organ donor, loaning possessions, and estate giving did not have the same effect. Such one-time or hypothetical decisions don’t have the same impact on the giver, because they aren’t reflective of an overall attitude of the heart.
Again, this is consistent with scripture:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45)
It seems that love of self is actually harming the ungenerous, who “hold on to their resources out of self-protection and the fear that they may not have enough in a time of need.” Not surprisingly, a heart that is full of self-interest cuts off other kinds of communal connections as well:
Ungenerous Americans recoil from imposition of all kinds, not only those of needy people. They prefer to live without authoritative moral codes, religious traditions, or even close non-familial friendships that might ask them to act in ways that cut against their self-interest.
Smith is a sociology professor at Notre Dame and Davidson is a PhD candidate there.
I’m grateful for their extensive research and careful presentation of the results. The charts, data, and lengthy interviews found in The Paradox of Generosity should satisfy skeptics and scholars.
They have employed the language of academia to describe in new ways something that has always been true: That generosity feels good, and is good for you, because it’s how we were designed to behave. God has made us in His image, and has been abundantly generous with us. How generous? He has given us far more than silver or gold.
You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
I wrote this review for the Englewood Review of Books.
Christian Smith is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative. He is the author, co-author, or editor of numerous books, including Young Catholic America, Souls in Transition, and Soul Searching.
Hilary Davidson is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame. With Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, and Patricia Snell Herzog, she is a co-author of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.