Powerful research connects generosity to happiness but only if we are thoughtful about it. There are many ways to think of generosity. The great poet & author Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This generosity of presence is one of my favorite forms of generosity.
Oftentimes, generosity isn’t even fully conscious on the part of the giver. I have a good friend Jim who helped me through a difficult time by joining me for a morning walk nearly every day for weeks. He’ll probably tell you we were just out for a stroll but it was way more than that to me. Another friend regularly reminds me how I made it a point to join him for lunch each week as he went through cancer treatment. The interesting thing is that I don’t recall if that was completely intentional on my part. I wonder if I was just hungry!
I’ve also linked a podcast talk, Generosity as Mindfulness Practice below:
Check out this hilarious story of generosity called Joy from Ashok Ramasubramanian.
One of my favorite lenses through which to view generosity is the lens of letting go, letting go of expectations, letting go of attachments. When we are generous, we move out of the comparing, judging and analyzing that characterizes most of life. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written about the positive effect generosity can have on one’s sense of and freedom. When we give, we continually test our limits. She writes,
“our attachments say, ‘I will give this much and no more’ or ‘I will give this article or object if I am appreciated enough for doing so.’ The practice of generosity is about creating space. We see our limits and we extend them continuously, which creates a deep expansiveness and spaciousness of mind.”
Generosity’s greatest quality emerges from the gesture of letting go. Letting go of the sense that something is mine and I deserve it. This also makes choosing to let go instead of doing it out of obligation a critical step in authentic, life enriching generosity. A mindset of abundance facilitates the ability to let go and share our gifts with others. Still, this doesn’t mean we must always be generous but instead reminds us to experiment with it. I found this most useful at home. Despite my urge to control the planning and outcomes of our family’s adventures and commitments, when I step back and let my wife and children have a say, they are happier, calmer and feel ownership of the outcome.
Salzberg describes two aims of giving. The first, she says, is
“to free our minds from the conditioned forces that bind and limit us. Craving, clinging, and attachment bring confinement and lack of sense esteem. If we’re always looking for some person or thing to complete us, we miss the degree to which we are complete in every moment. It’s a bit like leaning on a mirage only to find that it can’t hold us; there’s nothing there. The second purpose is to free others, to extend welfare and happiness to all beings, to lessen the suffering in the world. When our practice of generosity is genuine, we realize inner spaciousness and peace, and we also extend boundless caring to all living beings.”
The act of giving recognizes interconnection and interdependence we have on each other and also sets into motion of cycle of generosity and love from others.
Generosity can also be very humbling. With generosity of assumption, I ask myself if I can defer judgment in a situation and instead bring curiosity. It is rare that someone hurts or insults me just for fun. Instead, it is often the result of some challenge or unhappiness in their own life. It isn’t about me. In our current political environment, the generosity of assumption is ever so critical. We all have different opinions and our support of a particular party or politician doesn’t represent all that we are. And that is before even considering that I’m often wrong!
Brene Brown writes about this in Rising Strong. She suggests a way of relating where you “extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” This isn’t to say that you become soft and flaky. It is more of a recognition that we are all coming from different experiences that inform our behavior. Our assumptions about others are more based in our habitual way of responding to others and through exploration, we might approach a clarity that is based on our present moment experience. We can actually be more discerning and even choose not to relate to certain people when our full faculties suggest it isn’t safe.
Finally, generosity is a critical component of self-care and self-compassion. When we treat ourselves with kindness regardless of outcome, we aren’t giving ourselves a free pass. We are allowing ourselves the generosity of assumptions and presence that offers the promise of forgiveness and understanding. This opens us to creativity, curiosity and appropriate risk taking as we embrace our vulnerability and live with a sense of wholeheartedness.
Practice and Research
Krista Tippett of the radio show and podcast On Being interviewed generosity researcher Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take. In the discussion, Adam makes several salient observations using a framework of personality types he calls givers, matchers and takers. Like Salzberg, he argues, “the most successful givers are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. They are strategic in their giving so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties and they consolidate their giving into chunks so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.” Grant describes generosity as “micro-loans” of our knowledge, skills and connections in ways that transform and shape experience. These “five minute favors” are more likely to be meaningful and less likely to leave us burned out.
Grant observes that givers have a tendency to either be wildly successful or just plain burned out. The distinction he makes is that successful givers are very discerning. They say yes to the things that they have time for, have unique skills or resources to contribute to and helped them feel connected. Failed givers, on the other hand, tend to say “yes” to everything.
There are several research-informed practices from Greater Good Science Center that you can use to build your generosity muscle. They play on our natural inclination towards kindness and caring that sometimes is masked by our expectations, our obligations and our judgments.
Remembering Connection – Humans are kindest when they we feel connected to other people. As we feel connected, we have an instinct to connect more deeply.
Shared Identity – Isolation and group difference keep us from harnessing our generosity. This practice is about identifying the commonalities with those that we may see as different from us.
Random Acts of Kindness – The value of variety here highlights the importance of keeping our generosity fresh so that we and others recognize the act and appreciate it rather than expect it.
Try these practices out and let me know how they go. I wish you a warm and wonderful holiday season as well as the resilience and presence to persevere through any challenges or difficulties you may be facing. And I trust you’ll be able to bring generosity to all of it.
A version of this post was originally published on the Your Mindful Coach Blog in December 2016.
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