As I have been reflecting on traditions of giving and the related pressures, I have come to realize that what really matters is generosity, and I’m interested in how we can nurture generosity in our lives in ways that go beyond buying “stuff.” Research suggests that the more generous we ourselves are, and the more we surround ourselves with generous people, the greater influence we can have on others to be generous. (The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (“GGSC”) 2018). Generosity makes all of our lives better and may itself be the ultimate gift!
In this article, I present some bite-sized portions of the research around generosity, including how it’s good for our physical and psychological health and ways to foster it in children. I also offer some suggestions for gifts that are more about experiencing and making memories than acquiring.
What Is Generosity?
According to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project, generosity is “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly. What exactly generosity gives can be various things: money, possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more.” (The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (“GGSC”) 7).
People like to say that humans are innately selfish, but evidence suggests that humans are born with the biological “hardware” that’s needed for generosity. For example, humans have brain circuits and hormone systems in place that support us in helping others and make us feel good about so. (GGSC 12). These prosocial behaviors supported survival on an evolutionary basis.
Additionally, there is strong evidence that children are naturally generous, which suggests that generosity is deeply rooted in human psychology. (GSSC 12). Believe it or not, some studies even suggest that our generous instincts are strongest in toddlerhood. (GSSC 12).
How We Benefit from Generosity
In addition to the warm, fuzzy feeling we may get from being generous, research is showing us that there are measurable physical and psychological benefits from being generous. In some studies, adult participants who volunteered enjoyed better health (as measured by sleep, blood pressure, activity, delayed mortality, and other metrics) than those who didn’t volunteer. A large and growing body of evidence also suggests that volunteering and acts of generosity are associated with fewer psychological problems and greater feelings of well-being. (GSSC 22).
There’s growing evidence to suggest that being generous makes you happier, too, even from a very young age. (GSSC 23). In one study, toddlers younger than two exhibited more happiness when they gave treats to a puppet than when they received treats themselves and were even happier when they shared treats from their own bowl than when they shared a treat they found elsewhere (GSSC 23). Additionally, small acts of kindness–like giving away your treats, or helping a classmate–can measurably increase happiness, while more sustained acts of giving, such as a longer-standing volunteer commitment, can increase happiness even more. Similarly, giving our money to others increases our happiness more than spending it on ourselves (GSSC 24).
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that generosity improves our experiences in the workplace and in interpersonal relationships. (GSSC 24). But even beyond those findings, generosity has also been shown to be beneficial for resilience and connection, especially among teens. (Malik, et al., 2021).
Ways to Foster Generosity in Children
We can encourage generosity in children. (GSSC 50-52, 57). Here are some findings and related suggestions:
- When parents not only engage in role-modeling but also talk about giving, children are more likely to give and volunteer. Consider family volunteer activities: Food pantry work or other activities with Marin Food Bank, and work with the National Parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area (especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day/ National Day of Service) can be appropriate for a wide range of age
- Take full advantage of workplace programs that allow for volunteer hours, corporate matching, and more because policies that encourage generous behavior in parents may lead to “an intergenerational cascade of increased generosity”
- Simply thank children when they are generous. Offering material rewards (like toys or candy) for children’s generous behaviors is not likely to encourage generosity and may actually dampen it
- Children help significantly more when praised for “being a helper” than for “helping
- Nurturing empathy can support generosity
- Encouraging identification and discussion of emotions may help kids be more empathetic and more generous as they grow up
- Enjoying music, dancing, and making music with others can boost generosity
This time of year, society would have us focus our generosity on buying and giving stuff. Personally, I don’t want to feel limited to this choice. Generosity is about giving freely and abundantly, and we all get to think creatively about what to give with an eye towards what would be both meaningful and fun.
If we focus on giving the gift of time and presence, we can help make our friends and family feel special and appreciated. Take a moment to reflect on how you felt when someone gave you the gift of their undivided attention. How did it impact your connection with that person? Sometimes it feels great to spend time with your child or immediate family while creating something for friends or other family members. Doing a craft or baking cookies might be appealing. Booking a family game night, organizing a potluck or cook-off, setting up a scavenger hunt or even an informal talent show could be a festive way to celebrate each other and the season.
Another idea to consider is giving experiences as gifts. Tickets to a show or a museum, taking friends or family on a walking tour or nature hike with a local expert, going ice skating, or even just playing tourist and taking the cable car up to the Fairmont Hotel to see the gingerbread house are ideas for fun alternatives to traditional presents.
We Appreciate You
At GetzWell, each of us practices generosity towards each other, our families, and our communities. During 2023, we also made monetary contributions to several organizations including the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the International Rescue Committee, Natural Resources, and Support for Families of Children with Disabilities. We are committed to continuing on this path in 2024.
We are grateful for you, our GetzWell community. We appreciate that you trust us to support your children’s health and we look forward to working with you in 2024.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. (2018). The Science of Generosity [White Paper].
Malik, N., Perveen, S., Raza, M. (2021). Generosity Linked to Spirituality, Resilience, and Psychological Well-Being Among Youth: The Psychology of Goodness. Humanities & Social Sciences Reviews, 9(2),122-128.