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I read somewhere that today, generosity is today almost as endangered as rainforests – as we all strive to pursue our own happiness. But don’t we all remember a time when we helped someone in need – and by supporting the other person, we ourselves experienced a happiness that came with the realisation that we’ve just made the life of another person a bit easier.
That memory can be a great motivation to continue being generous: with our time, knowledge, friendship – and yes, if necessary also with our money. To be generous means overlooking minor mistakes. It means not always having it our way. It means sometimes taking a step back on the pavement when someone else is clearly in a hurry.
Generosity is probably one of the most understated, yet necessary qualities in our lives today.
It’s not by chance that all major religions equally include generosity as a virtuous quality that should be cultivated and practiced. And fortunately, being generous is actually something that inspires others to behave in a similar way – it’s contagious!
In a 2012 study from Cornell University,1 the authors describe a phenomenon known as “paying it forward”: Imagine yourself standing in a queue to get coffee and, as an act of generosity, the person behind you picks up your bill, and the person behind him his, and so on. That’s exactly what happened in a fast-food drive-through in the USA in 2012: 226 customers picked up the bill of the person ahead of them in line – without having to do so. An amazing, and quite obviously contagious gesture.
Social contagion is an interesting idea as it offers us a new perspective on the concept of reciprocity, which is often associated with generosity. Reciprocity describes the feeling of having to return a favour or expecting something in return for our generosity. Reciprocity is a direct relationship between the giver and the recipient of a generous action, rather than the contagiousness of generosity. How is that?
On the one hand reciprocity means that you may have been helped in a difficult situation and you feel you’d like to give something back – that’s a wonderful motivation to donate time or money to charity. Yet if giving feels like an obligation or driven by an agenda (if I do this, that person will owe me) – this may be a good point to take a step back and consider why we’re giving something. Did you ever find yourself shopping for a gift for someone merely because that someone had given you a gift? And how much of your gift was then actually motivated by the feeling of having to return a favour, rather than your joy of finding the perfect gift for this special person?
On the other hand – if you spontaneously decide to be generous towards someone and someone else, who witnesses your good action, takes this inspiration forward – this is a wonderful, indirect and contagious way of being generous.
Because true happiness comes from giving generously without expecting anything in return.2
There’re so many ways we can be generous. We can offer advice – if someone asks for it. Or how about volunteering with a charity: reading to children or giving time to older people who’re otherwise lonely. We can write a restaurant review online, create free open-source software, we can leave honest product ratings online or stop to help someone to change a tyre on the side of the road. Or simply make some time to sit quietly, and listen to someone in need, giving them the space and time to articulate what’s been troubling them – and thereby find a bit more peace of mind.
If we can walk away, being happy about having just listened, without expecting a favour to be returned, then we’ve been truly generous. And we’ll feel a deep happiness that comes from this wonderful gift we’ve given to someone else.
Inspiring others to be generous is something we can easily do: by being generous ourselves. We think this is a great way to spread some good in our world!
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