Happiness happens, part 3: Generosity proves rewarding to the giver

Happiness happens, part 3: Generosity proves rewarding to the giver

“Obviously, you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village and beyond.” – Tom Stoppard

What exactly makes generosity so valuable? How can giving to other people be considered a “trick in life”? According to a book published in 2014, generosity just might hold the ever-elusive key to happiness.

Studying generosity

In “The Paradox of Generosity,” sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson presented research findings conducted by the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame, resulting in one of most comprehensive studies of the giving habits of Americans thus far. Researchers at the institute surveyed, interviewed and tracked 2,000 individuals over a five-year period, sometimes even following them into the grocery store. The researchers not only investigated how and why participants spent their money – they also looked into whether participants were thoughtful and emotionally available in their relationships, a form of generosity known as relational generosity.

The goal of the research, explained Smith, was to understand the connections between different forms of generosity as well as new ways to measure generosity that haven’t been studied before, such as relational generosity. The researchers also sought to determine the consequences of generosity.

Generosity has a positive effect on the body and mind

The results were remarkable, but not unexpected: Generosity not only improves the lives of others, but it also improves the lives of the people who practice it. For instance, Americans who donate more than 10 percent of their incomes have lower rates of depression than other Americans – specifically, 41 percent of frequent donors rarely or never experience depression compared to 32 percent of infrequent donors. Relational generosity also appears to be beneficial. Nearly 50 percent of Americans with strong relational generosity are in good health compared to 31 percent of Americans with low relational generosity.

Why does generosity lead to greater happiness and health? The researchers identified nine distinct casual mechanisms, ranging from developing a sense of self as generous to being more socially networked and physically active. Regardless of the precise cause, there’s no doubt about it: People who are generous live better lives.

Ways to become more generous

Developing a strong sense of generosity is not something that can be accomplished overnight, nor is it something that can be faked. People who choose to practice generosity simply because of the health benefits – not because they want to improve the lives of others – are less likely to reap the rewards. For instance, in a 2011 study entitled “Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults,” researchers found that individuals who volunteered for self-oriented reasons did not experience any health benefits.

So how can a person truly become a generous person? Is it even possible? The key is to make small, concrete changes every day. Learn how to recognize and appreciate generosity in other people. Surprise your partner with his or her favorite dinner once every few weeks. Smile at a stranger. Make a $1 donation to a cause you feel passionate about. By performing small acts of generosity each day, you will gradually – and naturally – become a more generous person.

Chances are you won’t regret it.

Sovereign Mental Health Services provides patients with a caring, individualized treatment plan as well as advice for how to increase their wellness and happiness in daily life. For further questions, please contact 866-954-0529.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer

Read the previous entry in this series

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