Is Generosity Learned or Part of Our DNA?

When growing up, did you ever make a Christmas list for Santa?  I did!  I couldn’t wait for the “Sears Christmas Wish Book” catalog to arrive so that I could go through it page by page to make my list.  I dreamed about all of the toys that I hoped to get Christmas morning and was enthralled with the idea of opening packages with a Daisy BB Gun (yes, like Ralphie in the Movie, A Christmas Story), a baseball mitt, match box cars or an Etch-A-Sketch.

While looking through the catalog, I never thought about other people and what they would like to receive Christmas morning.  I was completely self-absorbed and at that stage in my life there wasn’t a “bone of generosity” in my body.  Which began my thinking, why are some people generous and some not?  Do generous people learn how to be generous or is it a natural part of their DNA?

In his 27 May 2014 article, “What Makes Us Generous?”, Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame, defines generosity as “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly. Generosity thus conceived is a learned character trait that involves attitude and action—entailing both the inclination and actual practice of giving liberally. Generosity is not a haphazard behavior but a basic orientation to life. It entails not only a moral good expressed but also certain vices rejected, such as selfishness, greed, fear, and meanness.”

So, I guess all that I needed growing up was a little practice in being generous since the trait of generosity is a natural part of our DNA the same as negative traits such as selfishness or greed.  The question is which character traits are we going to nurture and develop?

Those are happiest who do the most for others.
-Booker T. Washington, Educator and Founder Tuskegee University

To that end, it is my belief that we need to teach and model generosity if the next generations are going to be givers.  Younger generations need to not only receive instruction but also need to see generosity modeled for them if they are to truly understand what it looks like.The publication, “Generosity: Inherited or Learned?” (8/26/15) by Daniel Trussell, Ph.D., describes a 2015 study that when children between the ages of 3 and 6 are guided to talk about the feeling of being left out or included related to sharing, those children tend to exhibit greater generosity than children who are merely offered the opportunity to share without a discussion of feelings related to being included or excluded.

Trussell noted in the article two factors that influence the capacity for generosity are modeling and “preaching.”

He references an example of the effectiveness of modeling and “preaching” found in a recent exercise that included elementary and middle school students. A “teacher” demonstrated sharing tokens won in a game by donating them all to a needy family, donating some to a needy family or donating none to a needy family accompanied with a lecture about the value of selfishness or generosity or no preaching at all.

A control group simply played the game without a “teacher” demonstration or commentary. Following the game, they were asked if they wanted to donate some tokens to a needy family and this established a baseline of giving.

When the experimental students were given an opportunity to play the game to collect tokens and were then asked if they wanted to donate, results were surprising. When the teacher modeled generosity whether preached to or not, students gave 85% more than the control group. Moreover, when the teacher acted in a generous manner but preached about the value of selfishness, students still gave 49% more than the control group. This certainly suggests that actions speak louder than words.

Part of the answer to the question about why some people are generous may be the fact that being generous usually brings the reward of joy.    

Christian Smith also highlights that “generosity makes a big difference in the quality of human personal and social life, both for the givers and receivers.  Generosity is not just giving anything, but rather those things that are good for others. What exactly generosity gives can vary: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more. But it always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of the receiver.”

Booker T. Washington, the great 19th century educator and founder of Tuskegee University in Alabama noted, “Those are happiest who do the most for others.”

If giving is so good for us, why don’t more people give?  Why is it difficult for some to be generous? 

Maybe people who find it difficult to be generous want to avoid the negative feelings associated with the loss they may feel in giving good things away.  By not giving allows them to avoid those negative feelings.  But people who practice generosity know that their lives are enhanced by giving to others.”

How can you help the next generation avoid having negative feelings when giving?  How can you model generosity for them?  How can you teach them to be generous? 

As we embark upon a new year, let’s make generosity part of our everyday lifestyle. 

Take advantage of the opportunities to give and serve through your faith community or local service organizations.  Volunteer with your children or grandchildren at a food pantry, nursing home or needs drive.

Recently a 5th grade church children’s teacher collected funds with her class for a library in an orphan home in Haiti.  All of the students were excited in helping children in Haiti. 

Maybe you and your family can shop together at the store and give an unexpected gift to an individual or family in need.  Or maybe you can get in the habit of leaving a tip for anyone who assists you?  Consider leaving more than the standard 20% tip to your wait staff at the restaurant or give extra funds above the contract amount to the painter you hired, the hairdresser trimming your hair, or the neighbor boy cutting your lawn. 

By making generosity part of your everyday lifestyle, you will surely experience happiness and joy, but most importantly, you will be teaching it to the next generation. 

For more thoughts on generosity pick up a copy of the enjoyable book, “An Unexpected Legacy: Strategies of Generosity.”    Click here to place your order.