Generosity has gotten itself a bad name. Introduced to most of us in preachy, didactic Moral Science textbooks with terribly sanctimonious illustrations, being generous was often viewed as a faraway, overtly pious ideal that no youngster would like to be caught aspiring to – lest he be mocked at for being sanyasi-like.
But it looks like generosity is emerging out of its holier-than-thou shell. Saints and philosophers have long viewed generosity as one of life’s greatest paradoxes – the more you give, the more you get; the more you lose, the more you win. And now scientists are saying it too.
Tested & proven
In the latest of a series of research experiments, researchers from the University of Zurich told 50 people that they would be given $100 each. Half of them were asked to spend it on themselves and the other half had to spend it on someone they knew. They were then brought to a lab, as the scientists wanted to test if just pledging to be generous could make a person happier.
In the lab, they were asked to think about the person they would like to spend the money on and functional MRI scans were performed on them. The scientists discovered that those who had pledged to spend the money on other people had more interaction in the parts of the brain associated with happiness, altruism and social behaviour. They also reported greater levels of happiness after the experiment. Earlier studies have shown that people who are generous tend to have better health in terms of reduced stress and increased positivity.
Mavericks of generosity
All this sounds nice and pleasing. But real life is greyer and starker than sterile labs. It does make one wonder if generosity is as straightforward a concept as research seems to suggest. Is it another of those neo-modern tropes that we have been compelled to believe? Does being generous really makes one happy?
Acclaimed novelist Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi believes so. “You are never poorer for what you give away. And when I have done even a small act of generosity, I always get this feeling that someone has done me a favour for what they receive,” he says. He goes on to talk about some “mavericks of generosity” he knows at the animal charity Wagoa to which he contributes a part of his income. “There are real heroes out there who gift their presence – they are the truly generous people,” he adds.
It is of course hard to deny that they are. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, writes in one of her blogs that she sees generosity as one of “humanity’s great natural watersheds – a place where lives can be cleansed, renewed, filtered back towards grace.”
But, as she herself points out, this watershed has a delicate eco-system – one that depends on the giver’s emotional state, social and economic status and general dispensation to fellow beings. One assumes these factors might have a great influence on how happy being generous makes one feel. But Vijaya Simha’s experience rather belies this.
A wealth management specialist, who has worked with several charities includes Mother Teresa’s for over two decades, he says he has come across several ‘truly’ generous souls who come from modest backgrounds, are of limited abilities and poor health themselves but are willing to give their entire lives for the cause they believe in; even at the cost of staying away from their families or foregoing a well-earned retirement. “I don’t deny that sometimes they do because of a strong sense of religious duty but there are many who do not fall into any category – they create the inspiring stories we read.”
Let’s get real
But what about real, everyday life?
These are, as Shanghvi calls them, ‘mavericks’. But even in our everyday life with our mundane jobs and never-ending chores, it is possible to squeeze out some happiness with what Anupriya Kalyan, a baker mom, calls ‘everyday kindnesses’.
Anupriya has got together other like-minded mothers in her apartment complex and has a monthly bake-off to pack goodies for a nearby orphanage. “Needless to say, it gives us a sense of great joy, a feeling of having been useful,” she says. Simha agrees wholeheartedly. “In a way, it is a different type of happiness. When you make a right call or intellectually you prove a point against a strong opponent, you do feel happy. But along with that there usually is a sense of pride or power. But when you do something charitable without any expectation, you feel humble and emotional.”
Clinical neuropsychologist Shantala Hegde says the underlying psychological phenomena in generosity is empathy. “Empathy is pro-social behaviour and a crucial component of good mental health. It has survival value too,” she says.
Utpal Barua, a research officer in a financial services MNC, says his life experiences have made him certain that the quality of happiness that is the result of being kind is deeper. “In my understanding, this is an evolutionary feeling that stems out of our ancestors’ need to cooperate with each other for our species to thrive.” He may well be right but what about the expectations of the giver? Utpal says the question of gratitude and acknowledgment does not occur as much with strangers as it does with family and friends. “I admit, I do feel let down if a friend or a family member does not even express gratitude for my generosity – this too is human nature,” he says.
Indeed it is. The same researchers who tell us that even thinking about being generous makes a difference also caution that this ‘feel-good’ effect of generosity might be dampened by expecting something in return. This ‘something’ varies from person to person; it might be publicity as Mr Simha points out, gratitude that Utpal is talking about or even plain personal gains that people expect from so-called selfless acts.
Still, everyone who has ever been generous, big or small, say unequivocally that it is worth giving a shot. As bestselling author of The Art of Work Jeff Goins writes, generosity is as much about courage as it is about happiness. “We must dare to be generous. It is an audacious idea and certainly not easy but it is the only path to genuine satisfaction.”
Happily, that makes generosity sound sexy. And that can only be a good thing.