A Case for Generosity in a Selfish Time

This August I spent four days in Nashville, Tennessee taking a class through the Lilly School of Philanthropy where I was introduced to a new study out of Notre Dame called the Science of Generosity Initiative and the book written from the research called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” The data from this national study, led by social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, reveals that the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.

Many Americans enjoy living very generous lives. But, according to the data, even more do not.

So why are Americans so selfish? One reason offered by the Science of Generosity Initiative is the fear of scarcity—a fear on the rise in America today.  We are worried about our personal resources, our national resources, our global resources. The fear of running out of money, basic necessities, and basic comforts leads us to a mentality best described by my friend Paul from Tennessee, “You need to get all you can. Can all you get. And guard that can.”

Certainly, there are people for whom scarcity of resources is a real problem. But for others of us, we would be well served to ask, Do we have a scarcity problem, or do we have a distribution problem?

We recently led a program for our college students on Adulting 101.  During the program we encouraged students to create a personal budget for themselves. How much money do you take in in income? How much are your expenses? Then—the all-important question—what is a want and what is a need? Do you need all those mocha frappe’s at Starbucks? Or do you need books for your classes?

Actually, a little bit of financial planning can go a long way when it comes to living a generous life. I will confess that money and economics are not my favorite topics. When my husband, Dan, and I meet with our financial advisor, I fight to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head from boredom. But after reading Smith and Davidson’s book, I realized that my loosey-goosey, unstructured way of giving (put a little in the plate here, contribute to that charity there) made very little impact on both me personally and the social causes I seek to support.  So I forced myself to sit down with Dan; we calculated our income, our expenses, tracked what we currently give to church and charities, discussed where we wanted to be on the scale of our giving (between 4% – 10% of our income) and made some decisions that felt faithful to both of us. Will we have to cut back on some of our favorite indulgences? Yes. (Mainly, I’m told, I’ll have to buy fewer clothes.) But we will benefit more from this planned giving and our causes will benefit more from our structured, monthly contributions.

The fear of scarcity is on the rise, but I imagine most of us could sit down, do a little financial planning and discover we have more to contribute than we realize.

Another reason Americans are less than generous, according to the Science of Generosity study, is a cultural value of autonomy, individualism, and exceptionalism. To put it more crudely; if it doesn’t directly affect me or my family or my people, it’s not my problem.

Greta Thunburg, the young environmental activist from Sweden, has her work cut out for her when she encounters such ungenerous people. When asked about the problem of global warming and climate change, Doug (who was surveyed for the Generosity Study) responded by saying this:

“I don’t pay attention a lot to that. But in the big picture of, “is the ice all gonna’ melt in Antarctica?” Yeah sure it probably is. Am I going to be here? Probably not. Are my kids gonna’ be here? Probably not.”

I feel like I could end this blog post here by just saying: “This is Doug. Don’t be Doug.” But Doug’s awful. And you’re not. So what can we less awful, more generous people do to help a self-centered, self-serving society that is afraid of losing….resources, freedoms, privileges, and power?

First, I think we need to be less shy about talking about money. The bible doesn’t shut up about money and all religions encourage generosity, so it shouldn’t be a topic people of faith avoid. Do our children and our youth know the happiness, health, and purpose in life we enjoy when we give generously?

Also, I think we could all benefit from examining our lives and considering where we could be more generous. For instance, when we vote, do we just vote along party lines, or do we listen to each candidate’s platform? Do we vote for candidates’ who promise to improve only our lives and our economic situation, or the candidates who will benefit the lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger? Do we invest in relationships beyond our small circle of family and like-minded friends? Do we take any great risks, or sacrifice resources we will really miss to benefit those whose need is greater than ours?

Generosity begets more generosity. I pray we can all enjoy the health, happiness and purpose in life our generosity inspires and encourage our society towards the same.


[Feature Image: yarenlen]


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