The Science of Generosity

During the holiday season in the Western world, there is a mindset that people are to be generous with their time and money towards those who are less fortunate. A Christmas Carol is treated as a cautionary tale of what can happen if people pinch their pennies too much.

And to an extent, that is the case: in 2016, there was an upward trend in charitable gift giving with an estimation of $390 billion going to charitable causes, though this statistic isn’t isolated to a specific time of year. There are a number of reasons why people donate to charities at the end of the year: because it feels good, tax write-off, a cause of personal importance, appeal from a charity, etc. Though this survey points out that none of these reasons were actually motivating factors and asks the readers why that might be the case.

We can only speculate on what truly motivates people to give at the end of the year with this information, but my hope is because there is a feeling of generosity that permeates people during the holiday season. And there’s plenty of reasons why this might be the case.

Types of Generosity or the Importance of Generosity

Money isn’t the only way people can give to others. Various cultures and religious practices define generosity differently and I will try my best to adequately distill each of these concepts below. Some religions define the types of generosity, while others outline the benefits of being generous, and still, others select particularly causes for its practitioners. All reasons are related in how the giver can help those in need.

According to the Venerable Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist Abbess, there are three types of giving: giving of material goods, protection, and Dharma.

  • While giving material goods can be difficult depending on the means of the individual giver, what matters the most is the motivation behind the gifts.
  • The gift of protection is about providing comfort and safety to those in need (whether it is a physical or emotional danger), essentially it is the gift of compassion for all others.
  • The final gift, the gift of Dharma is spiritual in nature. It is providing the Dharmic teachings as a means of comfort for those in need.

Being generous benefits the giver in many different ways in Christianity, though this article highlights four of them: becoming more Christ-like, freedom from materialism, provides joy for the giver, and future rewards after death.

Judaism has a term for generosity: tzedakah. It is the Hebrew word for justice or righteousness but also defined as charity. While charity may be more informal in nature, tzedakah is a religious obligation to living a spiritual life regardless of financial standing. While giving is mandatory, there are eight different levels of tzedakah according to the Talmud.

  • Giving so another is self-sufficient
  • Giving so the giver and the receiver are anonymous
  • Giving so the giver knows receiver’s identity, but the giver is anonymous
  • Giving so the giver does not know the receiver’s identity, but the giver is known
  • Giving without being asked
  • Giving after being asked
  • Giving less than you can, but with a good attitude
  • Giving unwillingly

Generosity in Islam can take different forms: speaking kindly to others, helping others, removing discomfort, and seeking justice. When a person is generous in Islam, they will be greatly rewarded by Allah but also feels joy when they care for others. Charitable giving is also known as zakah which is similar to Jewish tzedakah in that is a religious obligation. There are four different preferences.

  •  Zakah, one of the five pillars of Islam and thereby mandatory. It is paid once a year as a means to purify the giver’s wealth and so the giver does not put too much stock in their material possessions.
  • Sadaqah, this is the informal giving where the giver does so freely and it brings them a joy to be generous. It can range from a smile or a kind word to helping another out of danger or financial trouble. This is the most common term for charitable giving in Islam.
  • Sadaqah Wajibah, also a form of obligatory charity but is not zakah. For example, when the person takes a vow with Allah, it’s their fulfilling their vow to Him (though not practiced in all schools of Islam). It also applies to those who are not able to complete fasting during  Ramadan for various reasons: age, health, condition.
  • Sadaqah Nafilah, this is a non-binding form of charity that is completely optional. This includes charity done in Allah’s name, for a cause, benefiting others, removing personal difficulties, forgiveness for the giver’s shortcomings, and for giving the name of a baby (also not practiced in all schools of Islam).

This information is coming from one particular humanist group, but as there are so many different non-religious people in the world, the guidelines for giving can change from person-to-person. Giving takes a different path away from simple person-to-person charity, but also looks to be generous on a more global scale.

  • Funding for education in third-world countries (including education for girls)
  • Improved access to healthcare for marginalized populations
  • Fight global warming and protecting biodiversity
  • Fight for LGBT rights and protect other vulnerable populations
  • Supporting non-religious charities

The Science Behind Generosity 

Religions that base giving as a means of bringing joy to the giver aren’t far off with the science.

Giving to others lights up the pleasure centers of our brains, releasing serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin with a pleasure high that can last for a few hours. It can also lower blood pressure, increase self-esteem, lower depression, lower stress levels, longevity, and greater personal happiness.

Giving to others, whether it’s time, money, service, or simple gestures all work towards relinquishing material desires. This isn’t to say that the giver wants to live an ascetic lifestyle completely detached from their worldly goods, but that generosity is linked to personal well-being.

The benefits of volunteering have been found to be greater than taking up exercise, or attending religious services – in fact, even greater than giving up smoking. Another study found that, when people were given a sum of money, they gained more well-being if they spent it on other people, or gave it away, rather than spending it on themselves. This sense of well-being is more than just feeling good about ourselves – it comes from a powerful sense of connection to others, an empathic and compassionate transcendence of separateness, and of our own self-centredness[sic]. – “Happiness Comes from Giving, Not Buying and Having

The takeaway is that if one is incapable of doing diet and exercise for their health, then considering different forms of generosity would be an adequate way to help see health benefits.

If you are able to do diet and exercise, consider augmenting it with acts of generosity to help boost health physically, emotionally, and mentally.  It won’t solve all the problems, but that natural high has enough positive benefits that it might kick-start some other positive changes.

Ways to be Generous for Various Circumstances

For some, giving is easy to do. Donating a few extra dollars to charity, a few extra hours of time, they may not be a huge financial or time drain for them. For others, a budget is tight and time is limited.

Giving does not need to take specific forms, there are many ways to be generous no matter the circumstances. I’ve provided some ideas with links for different circumstances below.

Quick and Cheap ways to be Generous

Focused and Moderately Priced ways to be Generous

Intensive and Greater Monetary Commitment ways to be Generous

Upcoming Posts

For the rest of this week, I will have a post highlighting a crafting project that is a great way to donate time and resources for a good cause; and another post remembering not to forget the most important person that deserves generosity and charity in your life.

Follow my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook Page for additional posts this week about generosity. Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts to add to this post.

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Featured photo credit: Shutterstock

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