Science of Generosity: What We Give and What We Gain

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November 17, 2015

We’ve all heard it, especially around this time of year.

“It’s better to give than receive!”

“Give back to the needy! Work in a soup kitchen or donate to a toy drive!”

The idea even pops up in most of our holiday stories. “The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”


We all recognize it’s important. Our guts tell us it’s good. We try to “be nice.”

But we don’t always know the reasons behind our actions.

This weekend, I learned about The Science of Generosity Initiative, in which a research group at Notre Dame collects research and empirical data from any academic discipline that could touch on aspects of the subject. According to their website, they hope to explore “the operation of generosity in naturalistic settings in order to understand better the causal social mechanisms that generate and obstruct generosity.”

Their perspective takes several steps back from any one point of view in order to “reach beyond scientific and academic culture to share resources and research with corporate, civic, religious, and political leaders; non‐profit and non‐governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, and policy centers; and the general public.”

So, essentially, they are using all types of scientific fields to put together information on giving- money, possessions, time, and so on- for anyone, not just a particular political candidate, relief organization, or a religious group.

And what have they found?

Conventional wisdom might tell us that the more you give, the less you have. But the book, The Generosity Paradox, written by Christian Smith, head of the Initiative, disagrees. In its description, we learn that conventional wisdom is wrong. “This wealth of evidence reveals a consistent link between demonstrating generosity and leading a better life: more generous people are happier, suffer fewer illnesses and injuries, live with a greater sense of purpose, and experience less depression.”

I’m not running for office or running a rescue operation …

What does this mean for my family?

You don’t need to be working on a grand scale. This research deals in actions rather than results. What you do as an individual is what matters. It turns out that becoming a “nice person” isn’t the only, and frankly vague, benefit my kids and I will get out of giving. If parents can develop a habit of consistent generosity of time, resources, and energy in themselves and their children, toward any recipient you feel passionate about, they will not become only “nicer” people. They will grow into measurably happier, healthier, more purposeful, and better adjusted people.

That gives me a whole new motivation to find opportunities for generosity for our family!

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