When we think about generosity, most of us probably don’t think immediately of a powerful force, an inner resource, a real tool for changing how we relate to ourselves , to others and to our world.
Instead, we may think of it similarly to how we think of kindness or compassion — qualities that are gentle, tender, potentially self-effacing — and, as a big misconception, more aligned with weakness than strength. Largely this is because, culturally, we think of generosity purely in terms of the act of giving something up for someone else. This dynamic, by definition, implies at least some degree of self-sacrifice.
Generosity is more than just “giving up.” Generosity generates its power from the gesture of letting go. Being able to give to others shows us our ability to let go of attachments that otherwise can limit our beliefs and our experiences. It might be in our nature to think, “That object is mine for X, Y or Z reason.” But that thought can simply dissolve. This doesn’t just happen passively; we choose to let it through the cultivation of generosity. It is in that choice to dissolve that we carry ourselves to a state of greater freedom.
Our attachments might want to put a cap on our generosity and say, “I will give this much and no more,” or “I will give this article or object if I am appreciated enough for this act of giving.” But it is through the practice of generosity that we learn to see through the attachments, and create space for ourselves.
This doesn’t mean generosity eradicates all attachment automatically or immediately. When we practice the act of simply observing our attachments through acts of generosity, they loosen. They become less opaque, less solid. In that place, we can find greater spaciousness in our minds and tap into a greater sense of inner happiness.
From there, we can continue a deep investigation, cultivating further strength and flexibility to look at everything in our experience this way.
In other words, generosity can make us happier! According to sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson in their new book The Paradox of Generosity, there is a scientific, inarguable connection between generosity and happiness. Smith and Davidson surveyed 2,000 individuals (comprised of 40 families in 12 different states, all from different classes and races) over a five-year period about their spending habits and lifestyles. The participants who identified as “very happy” were those who reported volunteering for 5.8 hours per month; among those who donated more than 10% of their income, participants reported lower depression rates.
Smith and Davidson also found that participants who were emotionally generous in relationships — through giving love and emotional availability — were in much better health (48%) than those who were not (31%). In short, being able to step outside of oneself and give is an essential ingredient for happiness.
The idea that we benefit from being generous may seem like a strange thing to think about. Does that knowledge somehow taint our generous actions, making them corrupted and selfish? No. I think it’s OK to practice generosity knowing that it is beneficial to ourselves as well as to the recipient. It’s not selfishness, it’s an honest recognition that love and generosity creates an exchange of positive energy, and fuels further love and generosity.
I’m asked this all the time by meditation students who want to create better lives for themselves as well as others, but who feel a little squeamish when thinking about bolstering their own happiness through giving. I commonly respond with, “Seeing how the universe operates, having a sense of conditionality and cause and effect, that generosity brings happiness to the giver, isn’t selfish — it’s science!”
Our tendency is to look at other people around us and see them as “other,” that they are fundamentally disconnected from us. It’s self-protective but also keeps us at arms length from others and ourselves. Thinking of the world in this dualistic way causes us to feel a tighter grip on our habitual thoughts that tend to inform the way we act and define ourselves.
The most common problem happens when we act generously along with feeling a strong expectation for our offering to be received by another in a particular way: I want to give you that present because it will make you like me, or, I will bring my coworker a coffee so that she will say something nice about me to our boss. By contrast, a nourishing generosity emerges when we give without the need for our offering to be received in a certain way, perhaps wishing to be recognized or validated, but not needing it. When generosity lets go of these kinds of expectations, it is a movement toward freedom. That is how and why generosity can be a force, a resource, a tool.
The Buddhist tradition says that whenever the Buddha was teaching lay people, he would always begin with a teaching on generosity because it can bring so much joy and self-respect. This is a good platform from which to look at all of our experiences, including very painful ones, and not feel overwhelmed by them. And, it is said, the Buddha always began talking about generosity because we all have something to give. It might not be material. It might be paying attention to someone. It might be listening fully. It might be smiling at someone, or thanking them. These are all displaying generosity of the spirit.
Generosity is the bread and butter of feeling connected in our lives — to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. And it’s a practice. “I might read it next year even though it’s been sitting on that bedside pile for 4 years,“ or “I don’t know what advantage it is to me to pay attention to you,” or “If I give you this, I wonder if you’ll give me that,” or “How loudly and vociferously will you thank me?” You can experiment with making certain thoughts like these. They are the signal to take a deep breath, relax our grip, and take a chance on generosity.