The paradox of generosity

We’re all familiar with our Lord’s words that it’s “more blessed to give than to receive.” As it turns out, this maxim is not only true as a matter of faith, it’s empirically true, as well.

This is the subject of a new book, “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose,” by BreakPoint favorite and Notre Dame Professor Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, a doctoral student at Notre Dame.

The book is based on research from Notre Dame’s “Science of Generosity” initiative. As Smith and Davidson write in the introduction, “By grasping onto what we currently have  . . . we lose out on better goods that we might have gained . . .”

One such good is happiness.  We often hear that “money can’t buy happiness.” Whether most Americans actually believe this is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that generous people are more likely to describe themselves as “happy” than people who aren’t generous.

For purposes of their research and the book, the authors define “generous” as giving away ten percent of one’s income. People who do this are nearly half again as likely to say that they have a strong sense of purpose in their lives.

The same holds true with what they call “neighborly” and “relational” generosity. People who volunteer are significantly more likely to have a strong sense of life purpose compared to those who don’t.

As Smith and Davidson write, “Giving money, volunteering . . . being a generous neighbor and friend . . . are all significantly, positively correlated with greater personal happiness, physical health [and] a stronger sense of purpose.”

That’s why they can claim that “by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves” and that “It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’”

Think about the most famous literary miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. As his nephew Fred tells his guests, “his offences carry their own punishment.” Scrooge made himself miserable in this life and he still had Hell to look forward to.

As Smith and Davidson document, generosity is the remedy to the human tendency toward what they call “maladaptive self-absorption.” A friend of mine, who suffers from mood disorders, has found that when he feels most anxious or depressed, praying for others and performing little acts of kindness and generosity makes all the difference in the world.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: We humans are made in the image of God, who, in His very nature, is relational and all-giving.  What should come as a surprise is how few people actually practice generosity: Notre Dame found that that “only 2.7 percent of Americans give a 10th or more of their income to charity, at least 86.2 percent give away less than 2 percent of their income and nearly half give nothing.”

Sadly, as our society has become more post-Christian, it has become less generous. And, as a result, less happy.

— by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary ( that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.


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