Generous Child

“It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.” —Nigerian proverb

One of the most beautiful things about true generosity is that it comes from the heart. More than what you give, it is about being giving— approaching the world and your relationships with a feeling of abundance and a readiness to give what you can to make others’ lives even just a little bit better.

What is generosity, really?

According to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project, generosity is “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.”

This definition is really helpful because it breaks down generosity into two essential components:

1) Giving good things to others

Despite what many people might think, it doesn’t take a large donation to be generous. You can be generous in many ways: with your time, with your love and support, with your things. All it takes is giving a good thing (however you define that!) to someone else.

2) Giving them freely and abundantly

Giving freely means giving without reservations, without strings attached or any expectations of being given anything in return. Giving abundantly means giving often and from a place where you feel that you have enough of what you want to give — a smile, a hot meal, a moment from your day — for yourself and for others. This is what makes giving a gift, rather than a burden.

What can science tell us about generosity?

The Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an extensive review of The Science of Generosity. Here are a few of their key takeaways.

Giving makes you happy.

People report being happier when they spend money on others rather than themselves, both in the lab and in the real world, regardless of the amount of money (even $5 was enough to make a difference!). A study with male undergraduates found that helping other students pick up spilled objects uplifted their mood, and a study with over 29,000 adults found that people who volunteered for religious organizations were happier than people who did not.

Happiness makes you give.

Students who recalled a time they had spent money on someone else felt happier. What’s more, those that reported feeling happiest were most likely to spend money given to them during the experiment on someone else, suggesting a positive feedback loop between happiness and giving. This may apply across cultures too — data from 136 countries showed that people who give to charity are happier. In another study, participants who completed a writing task that made them feel positive feelings were more motivated to perform acts of kindness for others than participants who completed a neutral writing task.

Giving is good for your health.

A study of 1,118 diverse older adults in New York City found that giving social support was associated with better health, and that more generous people had better health regardless of the support that they themselves received. Another study found that participants who performed acts of kindness for others over a period of six weeks reported more positive emotions and gene transcriptional changes that are associated with positive health outcomes. Giving support can also reduce your stress response by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity.

Giving is good for your relationships.

A daily diary study with 69 romantic couples found that acts of putting your partner first, or acts of sacrifice, were associated with greater positive emotions. Moreover, the people who did not expect or want sacrifice in return for their own reported the greatest relationship satisfaction.

Emotions that connect you to others or to the natural world inspire generosity.

Empathy, compassion, connectedness, and gratitude— emotions that connect you to others — have been found to motivate people to cooperate more, give more, and help more. Awe and elevation, emotions that take you outside of yourself, were also found to result in greater willingness to volunteer and help strangers.

How can we cultivate generosity through digital media?

1) Nurture emotions that support generosity.Focus on ways that media might be able to prompt or predispose us to the emotions that result in a more generous mindset: happiness, empathy, compassion, connectedness, gratitude, awe, and elation. This insight has deep roots in philosophical and religious traditions as well. According to the Dalai Lama XIV, “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.”

2) Tie generosity into identity.Research suggests that people are more willing to give when they see generosity as a part of who they are. Perhaps digital media can ask us to perform small acts of kindness for others, or point out the things we already do, and redefine generosity as something that we already have within us.

3) Build in reflection.A meta-analysis showed that community service only had positive effects on adolescent’s academic, personal, social, and civic achievement when they reflected on the meaning of the experiences. Maximize the benefits of giving by prompting moments of reflection.

4) Teach mindful giving. Most of us know that giving is good, but we don’t necessarily know how to give freely or abundantly. Digital media might be able to help teach us how by giving structured cues that encourage us to step outside of ourselves, to give without needing to be appreciated for it, or needing it to be received in a certain way. Letting go of expectations and learning how to give simply because it feels good and is part of who you want to be in the world can be a source of growth and joy.

5) Create community. Part of the power of giving is the positive ripple effect it can have in our relationships and community. Generosity is contagious. Teenagers give more when they think their peers also give, and people also feel good (even elated!) when witnessing acts of kindness that others perform. By connecting us in new and creative ways, digital media can help start and spread those ripples.

Generosity as a strength

Performing even the smallest acts of generosity can make a difference in your health and happiness. Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and writer, goes even farther. She argues fiercely and beautifully that generosity is a strength, “a powerful force, an inner resource, a real tool for changing how we relate to ourselves, to others and to our world.”

Rather than passively “giving up” something for someone else, generosity is really about deciding to “let go.” It is freeing and empowering to give without feeling attached to an outcome or a need to be appreciated for it. Even better, the more you give love and generosity, the more you inspire love and generosity in others. Here lies the true strength in generosity. Not only can it make us happier and healthier as individuals, but it can be a powerful tool for positive change in our relationships, community, and society.

Laura Hazlett is a first year PhD student in Social Psychology at UCLA. She studies how social connection affects our brains and bodies, and why it has such a powerful effect on our health. In her free time, Laura loves cooking for friends, going for long runs, listening to her favorite podcasts, and traveling.

Laura is part of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab: https://sanlab.psych.ucla.edu/

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.