“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha
So often we are taught to arm ourselves with cynicism and irony, to cut ourselves off, dismissing displays of kindness or generosity as phony or self-serving. It takes a lot to say, “I am going to conduct an experiment to look at things another way.”
My friend David Gerbstadt has been doing a lot of experimenting. David is a local artist who uses art to share his positive message and connect with people in the community. These messages include “You Are Loved,” “Never Give Up,” and “Be Kind.” David is also well-known for his commitment to art for everyone. The video below shows a project where he left his art throughout the community for people to enjoy and ultimately take home with them. How radical!
David’s generosity doesn’t have a specific expectation when he shares it. Instead, he follows his heart, trusting that a response will arise. I’m a huge fan and have started a club at The Shipley School to continue to spread this message of abundance and generosity. We aren’t all great artists but each of us has a gift that is renewable. It may be a smile or a kind gesture. Or it may be a human connection in a time of need.
Like David’s work as much as I do? Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. He offers “$1 art by mail,” Be Kind buttons for $1 each and has a huge studio with paintings, found-object sculpture and much more.
At Center for Self-Care, we’ve begun with a primary focus on men and dads. When it comes to men and generosity, I’ll start with the bad news. A recent study by from The University of Zurich suggests that men’s brains respond more to selfishness than generosity. The opposite is true for women. In the study, participants were given a choice to keep a sum of money or share it with someone else. Participants were placed in an fMRI machine to monitor brain activity. What researchers found was that an area of the brain called the striatum showed increased activity in women when they shared the money and in men when they kept all of the money for themselves. The striatum is part of a human’s reward system, coordinating the release of dopamine, one of our “feel good” hormones. Men are literally rewarded with a release of soothing chemicals for selfish behavior. Strangely enough, when researchers gave participants a drug designed to suppress dopamine release, men and women switched roles, with the men becoming more generous!
The study was small and far from conclusive. Additionally, it is hard to say whether this observation is hard-wired or a learned behavior based on cultural norms and expectations. We are learning more about neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to learn based on our experience. When we are rewarded (both externally and internally) for selfishness, we tend to continue that behavior. There is a vast literature describing the differences in ways boys and girls are treated. Oftentimes, girls are rewarded for pro-social, generous actions. On the flipside, girls are more likely to be punished for selfishness while boys may be excused from consequences because “boys will be boys”.
Aside from consequences, unwritten social expectations can play a role as well Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story declares, “We know that girls and women are socially expected to behave in different ways from boys and men. We encourage girls to be kinder, gentler and more generous, because these are seen as female virtues. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that research like this shows that women tend to show a greater reward response to this kind of behaviour.”
Other research has suggested that women are more likely to be balanced in their generosity, appealing to fairness and equality. Men, on the other hand, may appeal more towards justice, leading them to be either “perfectly selfish” or “perfectly selfless” depending on the situation and benefits they may accrue from their response. Additionally, these researchers found that when generosity is expensive, or takes a lot of effort, women tend to be kinder while men may be kinder than women when the cost of generosity is low (small gestures). This is exciting news. It offers a window in to how to start with generosity. Returning to the concept of neuroplasticity, we do know that generosity can be practiced and learned. Experiment on your own or try out the suggestions in The Power of Generosity. Men can rewire their brains to emphasize selflessness over selfishness. And it is important to start small. As Mother Teresa explained, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”