The subtitle of the book The Paradox of Generosity says it all: “Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” In this book, authors Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson present their extensive research on generosity. The authors define generosity broadly, including financial giving, volunteering of one’s time, and relational generosity. As the title suggests, the results of giving are often the opposite of what we might expect. In short, according to Smith and Davidson, generous people usually get back more than they give.
When faced with a decision as to whether to be generous, we often unconsciously assume it’s a zero sum game. If I give away my money or my time, I’ll have less of it for myself. Giving is good, we think, but it’s a sacrifice. I’ll be relatively worse off after I give. Not so, say the authors of The Paradox of Generosity. Over and over their research showed that generous people tend to get back more than they give. More specifically, generous people usually get back four things: happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth.
Let’s take happiness first. The research showed a clear and statistically significant relationship between giving away 10% of one’s income and a greater probability of being happy in life. In general, Americans who consider themselves the most financially generous also tend to be the most happy. On the other hand, happiness declines as generosity decreases. In the case of volunteering, on average very happy Americans volunteer ten times as much as very unhappy Americans. Clearly giving through volunteering leads to happiness. And finally, the research showed that Americans who practice the highest level of relational generosity (helping or taking time with people) are also those who report being the most happy. Without going into all the detail, the authors note similar correlations between generosity and health, having purpose in life, and personal growth. They also point out that health includes both physical and mental health. Although it’s hopefully not our only motivation for giving, being generous clearly pays off in many different ways.
The last chapter in the book talks about the “lived experiences” of generous Americans. Generous people almost always end up genuinely enjoying giving, according to the authors. It’s not a burden, but rather is something that makes them “light up”. Interestingly enough, a high percentage of generous people end up simplifying their lifestyles and living more modestly. They see the power of what their resources can accomplish, and they choose to consume less themselves. The recognition of “having enough” is a common characteristic of generous people. Generous people also tend to take time to exercise and eat well. They eat more healthy home cooked meals, take more walks with loved ones, and go on bike rides with their kids. And finally, generous people tend to face problems and setbacks with more grace, even humor.
Generous people end up getting back more than they give in a variety of different ways. In the moment, giving can seem like it’s only a sacrifice; but in the end, we’re better off when we give, and give regularly. We end up happier, healthier and better connected to those around us. I encourage you to think about how “the paradox of generosity” applies to you.