One of my most cherished abilities I’ve inherited from my family upbringing is the capacity to be generous with my money when I didn’t have a lot (which is most of the time).
But recently I’ve been challenged to expand my view of generosity beyond gifts of money, possessions or a fresh cooked meal. I’m not diminishing financial generosity, which is a wonderful gift (and perhaps a bit of a skill) not everyone possesses. I’ve just thought a lot about how to be generous this week and have set an intention to get out of my comfort zone a little.
In my research and learning, I’ve come up with some ideas that I think can help anyone become more generous in healthy ways, ways that lead to increased happiness, connection and a deep sense of significance and fulfillment.
Here’s what I believe makes people more generous:
1. Generosity is a skill.
Not an inherent virtue possessed by only a few extraordinary individuals. Each one of us carries the capacity to cultivate a generous spirit already.
2. Generosity looks different for everyone.
The question is, what does it mean for you to offer generosity? Does it mean being generous with your time? Paying attention to someone, or giving a certain quality of attention to someone? Does it mean giving something, perhaps something out of the ordinary? Think about what it means for you to offer generosity.
3. We’re probably not as generous as we could be because our habits and old thinking patterns hold us back.
Maybe it’s a show we’re addicted to or a social media account we feel we must constantly check that keeps us from spending more quality time with our kids or deeply listening to a friend who is struggling. Or, if you’re an introvert like me, you listen to the voice that insists “I don’t have enough energy to spend on this person,” or, “If I smile and be friendly towards this person, they’ll want to take advantage of me, or worse, not respond at all.”
4. Self-compassion is the underpinning of generous acts (and other forms of altruism).
I can’t stress this enough. A generous spirit flows most freely and readily from the person who treats herself with loving-kindness. This is a radical statement in a world that confuses self-esteem – our perceived value based on achievement and other forms of merit – with self-compassion – extending compassion towards ourselves in times of failure, inadequacy and suffering. In Christian theology, this is often referred to as “grace” (we are inherently valuable and loved unconditionally without the need to earn it) triumphing over “works” (we earn our value based on what we accomplish relative to others or cultural standards).
Healthy generosity always feels good.
If we are cultivating self-compassion, we will more freely and automatically give of ourselves, even when it’s a risk to our ego. It feels good because we’re not doing it to try and earn love, acceptance, status or some sort of salvation or personal merit. We’re generous because we’re already complete, whole and happy.
1. Mindfulness meditation.
Social experiments and the famous Bible story of the Good Samaritan tell us that we can’t be generous when we’re not even aware (i.e. mindful) of the suffering around us. Usually we lose our mindfulness when we feel stress or overwhelm, when we take our lives too seriously until it seems like others’ issues are less important than ours. Mindfulness meditation is a practice scientifically proven to help people be more compassionate.
Just like everyone else’s, your life is precious and worthy of loving acceptance and appreciation. Nobody need believe that they must somehow earn their intrinsic value or compete for love. Of course, few people readily accept this truth. In fact, I think we could all learn to be a little more compassionate to ourselves, especially when we fail or find ourselves in the throes of pain or stress. A simple way to begin doing this is by noticing when you are engaging in negative, self-critical thoughts and self-judgments. Remember that these thoughts are not you – they’re just thoughts and interpretations of reality.
3. Gratitude and appreciation.
I have found that the more I express gratitude or appreciation for some aspect of myself or my life, even though it’s usually in the form of thoughts in my head, I naturally appreciate other people more. The more aware I am of the many ways I appreciate others, the more ready I am to spontaneously give someone a word of thanks. A simple exercise to cultivate gratitude in your life is to write 3-5 things you appreciate most about yourself. Try it out every day for a week and notice the difference.
4. Praying for others.
In our individualistic society, we see thousands of spiritual and religious people mostly praying for things they want, success they want, relationships they want. In other words, we find people who claim to be spiritually-oriented spending hours and hours of their devotional lives consumed by their own desire for personal gain, wish-fulfillment and the fictitious hope of salvation from pain, with no regard for the plight of others. Obviously, this self-absorption does not cultivate compassion and, at best, only fuels the fire of suffering in those people’s lives. By contrast, thinking of others in their suffering, and wishing them peace, joy and freedom from pain, represents the actual spiritual teachings of major faith traditions and is now supported by empirical scientific studies.
5. Reflection and intention-setting.
We are not as likely to move towards greater generosity, or any goal for that matter, if we don’t set an intention to do so. That being said, the very act of setting an intention is an accomplishment. It shows we are aware enough and caring enough to make that intention in the first place. As with any commitment, we will experience dips in our momentum and periods of apathy or discouragement, therefore reflection and renewing our original intention should be an ongoing practice.
How to Become More Generous
Generosity isn’t something we can fabricate overnight, and it requires more than mere behavior modification. In fact, I believe it should be part of a larger vision of becoming a happier, more compassionate version of ourselves.
Although it’s paradoxical to say this in a post about becoming a better version of yourself, it’s true: you are already enough. You are an awesome human being. You don’t need to do anything out of a feeling of inadequacy.
And if the idea of being even more generous than you already are feels like too much, maybe you need to focus on being more generous with yourself. Even if this isn’t you, start by being kinder to yourself.
Some days will be easier than others. That’s okay. When you feel yourself losing motivation, know that this is normal. It’s an opportunity to reconsider and renew your original intention.
I hope this helps.