On a Saturday afternoon, not long after I moved to New Orleans, I watched a small, rectangular package slide through my mail slot and tumble down to the floor. The package was from my mother and contained one pair of multi-colored, cushioned, low-cut, athletic training socks. I wasn’t expecting the package, nor did I need another pair of socks. My mother just thought I would like them, as demonstrated by the accompanying handwritten note that read: I just thought you would like them.
I’d be lying if I said the package didn’t make me chuckle, but I can’t say that it surprised me.
My mother is constantly thinking of my well-being, and if there’s some way that she can make my life just a little bit better. And, even though I now live more than a thousand miles from home, hardly a week goes by where my mother doesn’t call to let me know that she’s at Costco, wondering if I could use a new pair of khakis or some boxer shorts or maybe a few sticks of deodorant. Plus, on her way home, she’ll totally stop at Kohl’s because she got a thing in the mail that says they’re having a really great sale on men’s wrinkle-free dress shirts. After all, it’s no big whoop to ship a few things from Omaha to New Orleans.
Of course, I’m not the only beneficiary of my mother’s big-heartedness.
My mother frequently asks my older sister to leave her front door ajar, so she can drop off some new clothes for the grandkids or some gluten-free brownies or a vat of homemade chicken salad. She leaves coupons in my sister’s mailbox, pitches in during spring cleaning, and gets down on all fours to plant herbs in my sister’s garden. She cuts out articles my sister might like, offers to run my sister’s errands, and gladly agrees to babysit at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, she’ll stop by just because she was in the neighborhood and thought my sister might need help folding laundry.
I know what you might be thinking: that my mother is just being a mother, that any decent mother likes to care for her children, that your mother is just as nice as my mother, and that maybe I should just shut the fuck up about my mother. And that’s fair enough. But, I think it bears mentioning that my mother’s generosity extends far beyond my sister and me.
My mother regularly checks in on her older brother, who lives comfortably in Scottsdale, but sometimes forgets to take his cholesterol medication.
Every week, she visits her mother-in-law in a nearby nursing home – a place that, incidentally, never fails to give me the motherfucking heebie-jeebies.
She reaches out to our cousins and other ancillary relatives just to see how they’re doing, and if there’s anything they need from our side of the tribe.
And, on Mother’s Day, she insists on having everyone for brunch, instead of letting us do something for her.
I know what you might be thinking: that there’s nothing all that special about my mother, that mothers are wired to look after their loved ones, that your mother is just as thoughtful as my mother, and that it’s really not a big fucking deal. And that’s fair enough. But, I think it bears mentioning that my mother’s generosity extends far beyond family.
Take a look at the desk in my mother’s office, and you’ll find a sizable stack of envelopes, sealed, stamped, and ready to be delivered. Each envelope contains a birthday card – or maybe an anniversary card – personalized with a thoughtfully crafted, hand-scribbled message. Its recipient could be anybody: a dear friend, a former colleague, a casual acquaintance, or just someone my mother thinks is “a first-rate jackass.” Yes, even if my mother doesn’t like you, there’s a good chance she’ll send you some love at least once during the year.
Of course, my mother’s generosity extends far beyond friends and acquaintances.
My mother volunteers at a world-renowned cancer center, where she mans the hospitality cart, visiting waiting rooms to see if patients need games, magazines, refreshments, or just someone to keep them company.
She serves on the caring committee at a synagogue, cooking meals and delivering them to those in need.
She’s part of a women’s group that is dedicated to social action.
She sits on the board of a local community center.
She donates to the Anti-Defamation League, and assists them in putting together their annual training event.
She holds seminars for other women whose spouses have died, ensuring that they have the support they need to move forward.
She does all of this, and yet, she really doesn’t do as much as she should. I presume that’s what she’d tell you, anyway. Because, when I asked my mother about her generosity, she began by saying, “I really don’t do as much as I should.”
The fact is, my mother gives away her time and money, but does so judiciously – and genuinely – to the right people, for the right reasons. She doesn’t over-give. She maintains healthy boundaries. She always makes time for herself. And, when she gives, she never expects anything in return.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: my mother is the most generous person I’ve ever met. Maybe she was born with such a spirit. Or, maybe, as she grew older, she learned the importance of giving. Either way, my mother is a true altruist, who strives to make generosity a daily practice. And, I can’t help but wonder if maybe that’s why she’s so goddamn happy all the time.
THE SCIENCE OF GENEROSITY
It’s no secret that generosity has long been acknowledged as a way to increase happiness and improve emotional well-being. Even Gandhi said that “the path to happiness lies in not being a stingy dick.”
Actually, Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
The Tao Te Ching teaches that “the heart that gives, gathers.”
And, Seneca the Younger said, “We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly, and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers.”
Certainly, being generous doesn’t guarantee a rich and problem-free life. But, modern research has proven what some of the world’s greatest thinkers have been telling us for thousands of years: Give away some of your time and money, and you’ll be happier for it.
In a 2016 study, for example, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland gave 50 people around $100 over the course of a few weeks. Half of those people were asked to spend the money on themselves, and the remaining half were asked to spend the money on someone they knew. But, the researchers wanted to see if merely pledging to be generous would make people happier. So before handing out the money, they brought the participants into a lab and asked them to think about who they might spend it on.
Functional MRI scans showed that participants’ brain activity depended on how they pledged to spend the money. Those who agreed to spend it on others showed more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with happiness and altruism. Not to mention that they reported significantly higher levels of happiness after the experiment was over.
Furthermore, pledging to give away a little money yielded the same effects as giving away a lot. “At least in our study, the amount spent did not matter,” shared Philippe Tobler, lead researcher and associate professor of neuroeconomics and social neuroscience. “It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect – like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”
Tobler also confirmed that, according to research, older people who practice generosity tend to have better health. Studies have shown that spending money on others can have the same effect on blood pressure as meditation or exercise. “Moreover, there is a positive association between helping others and life expectancy,” said Tobler. “Perhaps because helping others reduces stress.”
Of course, Tobler isn’t the only one who’s explored the science behind generosity. Just read The Paradox of Generosity, a 2014 book by sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. In the book, Smith and Davidson present their findings from the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame, which was established in 2009 and grew out of Smith’s work on Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money.
Researchers for the initiative surveyed 2,000 people over the course of five years. They tracked the lifestyles and spending habits of 40 families, all from different classes and races across 12 different states. They even accompanied some to the supermarket. It is widely known as one of the most groundbreaking and comprehensive studies ever done on the link between generosity and emotional well-being.
In The Paradox of Generosity, Smith and Davidson share that Americans who describe themselves as “very happy” volunteer an average of nearly six hours per month, while those who describe themselves as “unhappy” volunteer just 0.6 hours. Additionally, Smith and Davidson found significantly lower depression rates among Americans who donate at least 10 percent of their incomes. But, these statistics raise an important question, likely to be asked by those of us who think more cynically: Does being generous really lead to happiness or does already being happy lead to generosity?
“It may be, some skeptics will suspect, that generosity does not itself enhance well-being,” wrote Smith and Davidson. “Rather, they might believe, happier, healthier, and more purposeful people simply tend to behave more generously, because those kinds of people have more energy, vision, and physical capacity to be generous than unhappy, unhealthy, purposeless people…Greater well-being indeed often facilitates generosity. But, at the same time, generosity also enhances well-being. It does so through specific causal mechanisms that we can understand, explain, and test.”
Smith and Davidson also show that one can’t simply go out into the world, do something nice, and expect to be happier upon returning home. Random acts of kindness aren’t enough to achieve a better life. Much like my mother, one must strive to make generosity a regular practice.
“We have to learn just to be generous people,” said Smith, in an interview with The New Republic.
“One-off things just don’t affect us that much, whereas things that we repeat, things that are sustained in our bodily behaviors and in our minds, have tremendous effects on us. The empirical evidence was very clear. Nothing we tested where you just do it one time has an effect. But all the things that you have to sustain over time have that effect.”
A BETTER PLACE
If practicing generosity has such remarkable benefits, why aren’t more people generous? Americans in particular are relatively wealthier than almost everyone else on Earth. And, yet, many admit to going embarrassingly long periods of time without giving a dollar to anything or anyone. Why is this? Smith believes that it boils down to fear.
“Most people could be more generous,” said Smith. “They think they don’t have the money or the time but they could be more generous. I think people are afraid. They don’t realize that it’s good for them, that it could benefit them and not just other people. They’re afraid that it would be a loss. That if they gave money away or devoted their time, they would be losing something…One of the points of publishing [The Paradox of Generosity] is to help people step out of the fear and step into a better place.”
But, how do you step into a better place? Well, as Tobler put it after conducting his research, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.”
So, when you’re checking out at Walgreen’s, tap the button to give a dollar to the Red Cross.
Pay for someone’s Frappucino.
Sign up to volunteer at your local food bank.
Buy your stoner friend a bag of weed.
Join a group in your community.
Cook a pork butt for your neighbors.
Strive to make generosity a regular practice.
“Generosity is paradoxical,” wrote Smith and Davidson. “Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own.”
Oh, and the next time you’re in Costco, think about who could use some boxer shorts or maybe a few sticks of deodorant.