After reading and writing on generosity for the past several years, I’ve boiled generosity down to a simple, all-encompassing definition:
Generosity is intentionally, freely, and frequently giving to improve your life and the lives of others.
Let’s look at each component of this definition in more detail.
Unfortunately, lots of bad things have been done with good intentions, so when I say to give intentionally, I mean to give with the end in mind. Know what you want to accomplish and then give what is needed to reach that goal.
If you’re wanting to improve your own life, you start with the question, “What will serve me and my ability to serve others?” When we are generous with ourselves, we take care of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
If you’re wanting to improve the lives of others, you start with the question, “What will enhance their well-being?” When we are generous with others, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, understand what they need, care what they care about, and then give them what they need.
It’s very important to understand that being generous with others is not giving what you have in the hope that it is what someone else needs. Let’s take a common scenario that many of us have probably experienced. You have a bunch of old t-shirts that you think someone else could probably use, so you pack them up, send them to a charity who will hand out these t-shirts to people in need in Africa.
The first flaw here is that it’s generated from something that you have in abundance. So the focus has begun with you and not with others. Additionally, you haven’t taken into consideration a very important question, “Do people in Africa need old t-shirts? Do old t-shirts enhance their well-being?” Now, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Looking into that question further, you might discover that used clothing from our country keeps the clothing industry in Africa from developing, because businesses can’t compete with free clothes. Unfortunately, the clothing industry could employ a lot of people if they had customers willing to pay for clothes.
This could have been avoided if you had started with the question, “What would enhance the well-being of people in Africa?” When you ask the question like that, you come up with answers like sanitation, education, and access to markets. From that understanding, selling your old t-shirts and donating that money to a charity building wells is the generous thing to do.
Finding something to do with your old t-shirts is problem solving. You have too much stuff. You need to do some spring cleaning. It is not generosity. Generosity is driven by intentionality and requires that you first ask, “What will enhance their well-being?” Only then can you ask, “what do I have that can help?”
Generosity requires that your generous actions come from you freely and to others freely.
From You Freely: Sometimes there can be a lot of external pressure to give or to give in a certain way. I notice these situations, because I might feel trapped: “Here’s the right generous action.” Maybe I’ll feel obligated: “You should give, because…” Maybe I’ll start to feel resentful: “I can’t believe you’re making me…” Giving because of outside expectations often comes with language like “paying it back” or “it’s my duty” or “I have to”.
To Others Freely: A gift with strings attached is not a gift at all. It’s a trade. An exchange. An agreement (often unspoken).
All kinds of subtle strings can be attached to our so called generous acts. If I do something nice for you…
- You’ll like me.
- I’ll look important.
- You’ll do something nice for me.
- You’ll act in a certain way.
I’ll notice these gifts when I’m feeling resentful. I might say to myself, “You didn’t notice I did this” or “You didn’t do something nice in return for me.”
When you give because of outside pressure or with strings attached, generosity is transformed into an economic transaction where debts are tallied and balanced. Does the giving still count? As long as the strings attached aren’t hurting anyone then sure. But it doesn’t feel good, and who want to settle for giving without enjoying it?
Generosity is not a thought experiment. It does not exist until a generous act takes place. Therefore, you must act generously and the more often you act generously, the more generous you are!
Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done. In an experiment at Cornell University, 250 students were asked, “At the upcoming fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, how many daffodils would you buy?” More than eight out of 10 students polled said they would buy flowers and that they would buy, on average, two flowers each.
The American Cancer Society Daffodil Fundraiser took place, and the researchers returned to the students to find out what actually happened. While 80% said they would buy a daffodil, only 43% actually did, and instead of buying two flowers, they only bought 1.2 flowers on average.
We think we’re generous. We would really like to buy two flowers to support cancer research. But when the rubber meets the road, we just don’t give as much as we thought we would or think we should.
I understand why we don’t walk our talk, because for years, I didn’t, and even though I’ve gotten a lot better at it, there are still times when the tongue in my mouth is not lining up with the tongue in my shoes.
Here’s what we’re up against when it comes to actually being generous.
- We don’t feel we have enough.
- We don’t feel like what we can give is important.
- We feel like we’ll get around to it later.
- We’re too busy to deal.
- We don’t know what to do.
- We don’t know how to do it.
- We don’t want to make a mistake or do it wrong or look stupid or get taken advantage of.
That’s a lot of resistance, but it can be overcome by taking small generous acts everyday so that it’s never overwhelming.
Improve Your Life
You are the foundation from which you give to others, so that foundation needs to be strong and solid. You must be intentionally generous with yourself- give yourself those things that are good for you and enhance your well-being. You must give to yourself freely, because you are worth taking care of. And you must be generous with yourself frequently.
Generosity means eating and exercising regularly, finding time for meditation and/or prayer regularly, and taking other actions that nurture and improve your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Improve the Lives of Others
While taking care of yourself is critical, so is taking care of others. One of our deepest human needs is to make a contribution. It’s fundamental to our sense of accomplishment. At the end of our lives, we’ll look back and ask, “Did I matter?” And you can answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” when you make a positive impact on the world and improve the lives of others.
It’s important to be aware of two different ways we help others.
Giving to Others: We can address the immediate physical, emotional, and spiritual needs that a person might have. I call this charity.
Giving to the World: We can also address the underlying issue that caused this person’s problem so that other people will not experience the same problem. I call this justice.
For example, in your effort to give to others, you might volunteer as a Big Brother to an at-risk student who doesn’t have a father at home. In your effort to give to the world, you may fund an education effort at a local prison to teach men how to be good fathers, so that fewer youth grow up without a strong father figure in their life.
Giving to others makes an immediate and tangible difference in someone’s life.
Giving to the world is a long-term investment in creating a world where fewer people suffer, where wrongs are righted, and where everyone can reach their potential regardless of where they were born.
So there you have my long explanation of my concise definition of generosity.
What do you think? What does generosity mean to you?