We all know “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but relinquishing control of our time and finances isn’t always easy (Acts 20:35). In Touch Magazine’s Jamie A. Hughes spoke with Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and the co-author of The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, to learn how altruism has the power to make us happier and healthier.
Jamie A. Hughes: Can you explain “The Paradox of Generosity” in a nutshell?
Christian Smith: There are actually two paradoxes. The first paradox is, if we can overcome our fear and become generous, we actually benefit. We get back more of what’s truly valuable. The second paradox is, if that’s the case, then why don’t more Americans practice generosity? The number of those who do is very small.
Hughes: You discuss five aspects of well-being: happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression, and interest in personal growth. Generous people benefited in all five of those areas. Which one was the most surprising?
Smith: Probably bodily health. It’s easier to see a person is happy or depressed, that their subjective well-being is affected by generosity. But there is also a correlation between being physically healthy and practicing generosity. It is true that causal influence can go both ways, so it could be that somewhat healthier people are more likely to be generous. But I’m really convinced it goes the other way, too, that giving makes people more active. Our bodies can actually be affected by the kind of virtues we do or don’t practice.
There are many more ways of becoming generous in spirit and in behavior than just writing bigger checks.
Hughes: You say it’s crucial for people over the median income to give away money in order to experience the paradox of generosity. Why is that?
Smith: Money is a huge thing in life, and it has a lot of spiritual power. And so when people have more of it, they often don’t realize they need to share, that it’s actually part of their calling in life to share with others. And that makes it more difficult for them to be generous in other ways.
Hughes: You discuss something you call “relational generosity.” What is the value of that intangible sense of giving and how does it help people?
Smith: My research team and I didn’t want to assume that generosity only involves giving money or volunteering. Because if it is virtuous to give to others, there are a lot of good things that fit that definition. There are people you and I know who care about their relationships, who will make time for others, and who will prioritize helping people. They’re being generous not with their pocketbooks, but just by giving themselves to other people. They’re emotionally available.
And in contrast, we know there are people who don’t want to be bothered, who are hard to access. They aren’t really going to make themselves very emotionally available or vulnerable. They will help a little bit but then draw the line and say that they’re busy. I think that clearly, there is an encouragement for people to realize there are many more ways of becoming generous in spirit and in behavior than just writing bigger checks.
Hughes: You also believe proactively forgiving others is a form of generosity. How so?
Smith: Well, it seems that people who hold grudges are very focused on themselves. They’re not considering other people, mitigating circumstances, or even the value of moving on. However, people who are forgiving are much happier in life. Even though it can be hard to forgive, it turns out to be really healthy both emotionally and psychologically for the person who does. There’s nothing like restored and reconciled relationships to improve one’s mental and physical health.
Hughes: You write, “There is more than one way to be impoverished. Some people live in poverty because they do not have the income to buy adequate food, shelter, clothes, and medicine. But some people who have a lot of money and can live in a different kind of poverty. Theirs is a poverty of anxiety, of imagined scarcity, of vulnerability, and of dissatisfaction.” Both of these are present in America today, but which one do you see as more pervasive and harmful?
Smith: Different kinds of poverties are damaging in different ways. But Americans are very much focused on economic poverty, to the point that they don’t even consider the other forms it can take—relational, spiritual, and emotional. So we can hoard and still be impoverished in different ways. Relationships make people’s lives rich and happy no matter how much money they have, and we need to be more aware of that.
Hughes: As Christians, we know being generous is good for us. We know we should do it, but the gap between what we preach and what we practice is vast. Why do you think that is?
Smith: The answer to that is complicated. One reason is because we live in a mass-consumer economy that thrives when people are buying more than they need. That’s why we’re constantly bombarded by advertisements that tell us, "You don’t have enough,” or “The thing you just bought isn’t going to satisfy you. You need to buy something different."
Practicing generosity forces people to get outside of themselves. It helps them realize, “I’m living in a world of abundance. I actually have a lot. And because I do, I can share it.”
I’m not blaming it all on consumerism though; it’s only one piece of the puzzle. A lot of it comes down to fear and insecurity. People are afraid, and they say, “If I gave 10 percent of my income, what’s going to happen?” So they clamp down on what they have and put trust in money or possessions. So a lack of generosity stems from causes both spiritual than institutional. It’s all wrapped up together.
Hughes: How does expressing generosity help when a generous person experiences difficulties?
Smith: A lot of it has to do with perspective. When people just get wrapped up in themselves, when they get down on themselves, it’s very easy to focus only on what is bad. Practicing generosity forces people to get outside of themselves. It helps them realize, “I’m living in a world of abundance. I actually have a lot. And because I do, I can share it.”
If people want to practice greater generosity, how should they go about it?
Well, the first thing, it requires people to be honest about how much they actually give. A lot of people would like to be more generous, but they can’t quite get themselves to do it. Instead, they experience “comfortable guilt.” They feel terrible about it, but not so terrible that they’re willing to change.
However, once the facts sink in a person has to ask him or herself, “I only give $231 per year. That’s a fraction of my income. What do I think of that?” or “I would like to volunteer, but I hardly do anything. Is that acceptable?” Those are hard questions, but asking them is essential. After that, a person has to make a decision and say, “I want to be my better self. I want to be more obedient to what I believe.” Then routines must be put into place. One of the biggest predictors of more generous people is that they have routinized it. And once people do give, they realize it didn’t kill them and that they can actually do a little bit more.
It’s like jumping off the high dive into a swimming pool. You get out to the end of it and say, “I don’t think I want to do this,” but after that first plunge, you want to jump off again. You want to spend the next three hours jumping off the high dive. But the first time, it’s an act of will, not an act of joy. I think it can be a lot like that with being generous. But once we do and momentum gets going, it makes a real difference.