Vox carries an excellent excerpt from the new book “The Paradox of Generosity” by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. Using data collected with the Science of Generosity Survey, they determined that three precent of Americans give away at least 10 percent of their income and that 85 percent of give away less than two percent of their income.
In a paragraph in which social science meets the stewardship sermon, they write:
We find a strong and highly consistent association between generous practices and various measures of personal well-being like happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth. In our book we discuss the various causal mechanisms that produce this association. While greater well-being can encourage generosity, practices of generosity also enhance well-being. The causal mechanisms we identify involve everything from reinforcing positive emotions to developing a sense of self-efficacy to expanding social networks to increasing physical activity. Generosity, for example, often triggers neurochemical systems that increase pleasure and reduce stress. It also has the capability of reducing the maladaptive self-absorption that many ungenerous Americans experience. By giving away some of our resources for the well-being of others we can enhance our own. By clinging to what we have, we shortchange ourselves.
Smith and Davidson list a number of reasons that Americans give away so little of their income including our failure to believe that generosity is essential, our sense that we do not have enough money and our belief that the poor should help themselves.
As Elaine Woods of California put it plainly: “Do I feel an obligation to do things that are not going to harm other people? Yes, I do. Do I feel an obligation to care for other people? No.” To state it differently, the ungenerous Americans we talked with fail to grasp the fact that their actions do not take place in a social, political, economic, and environmental vacuum. They do not see that everyone’s life, however lived, sends out ripples of influence, positive and negative, toward untold numbers of other people. We cannot help but be responsible to some extent to and for others. But the notion that it is possible to give more generously of one’s resources to others rarely, if ever, crosses the minds of the ungenerous.
In the end, however, the fear of not having enough, coupled with an autonomously individualistic lifestyle, nearly always proves to be deeply unfulfilling. Attaining the sort of happiness found in material well-being and security, which the majority of ungenerous Americans pursue without regard for others, comes at a great personal cost. The battle is won, but the war is lost. The means people use to achieve this version of happiness leads to a self-defeated end. And that frustrated end obscures the deeper, richer, more complex kinds of happiness humans want, sending them on misguided searches for more of what already does not satisfy.
What do you think about the authors’ research and their reasoning? Why do you think most Americans give away so little of their income? What principles guide your giving?