What does it mean to be generous? It’s a question I’ve mulled over for as long as I can remember. It didn’t help that I grew up at a time when people started to love things and use people more. Surely it should be the other way around?
When I was growing up, I believed that those who gave more were the ones who gave the most. The uncle who gave 10 dollars was, to my mind, more generous than the one who shared his stories.
As I grew older, I started to value the people around me much more than the things I received. The most valuable possession anyone has to give is their time, and I’ve come to appreciate this more as the years go by. The aunt who shares her stories today is more precious than any amount of money.
But as a child, being generous seemed like a burden: Why would you want to give anything away that you value? Share some things, sure – but keep the good stuff to yourself.
When we’re young, the rewards of giving aren’t as apparent as the supposed rewards of receiving. Over time, I came to realise that being generous wasn’t about making grand gestures and that giving feels better than getting.
I remember one story about the Tibet’s Dalai Lama who was receiving well-wishers following a talk he delivered to a large audience. Most of the attendees presented him with gifts, which he happily received. At one point, an old woman came to him and offered the only possession of value she had.
Upon seeing this, someone asked, “How can you take this poor old lady’s best possession? You have enough gifts already.” The Dalai Lama replied, “It’s not that I need to receive the gift, it’s the lady who needs to give.”
Across the major spiritual traditions, we’re told variations of the advice that “it’s better to give than to receive”. Giving to others, whatever we might give, means we are contributing to the happiness of others, that we’re helping people to flourish, that we’re offering our help and support when it’s needed.
It’s an important part of being human; indeed, it could be argued that generosity is the main reason humankind has come this far.
In Buddhist teachings, it’s made clear that generosity is a virtue in itself, regardless of the amount of what’s given. As the Buddha advised, “Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals live here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings.”
Modern science backs up what traditional teachings have espoused for centuries: In 2017, researchers at the University of Zurich found that generous people live happier lives, while those who act out of self-interest tend to be less happy. They also suggested that even making the commitment to being more generous triggers changes in our brains that make us happier.
The best part about being generous is that we needn’t “give big” for our generosity to make a big impact on people’s lives. In fact, it’s usually the little gestures that make the biggest difference. Whether it’s our boss telling us they really appreciate our efforts, or someone taking the time to share a cup of coffee and some stories with us, the vital ingredient behind anything we give is the intention to give without condition.
In Buddhism, generosity is the foundational virtue upon which everything else is built. When we give, other positive qualities grow within our hearts as we spend less time looking inward and more time helping others to alleviate their burdens.
As the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahmali advised me, being mindful leads us to be more kind … but being kinder also leads us to be more mindful. In my own experience throughout the years, this has sometimes been a case of “easier said than done”. It can be difficult to override our self-interest; it’s such a powerful and potent drive, but there’s great wisdom in the spiritual teachings that we find in our respective scriptures.
The paradox of giving is that, the more we give to others, the more we receive. Generosity is the social glue that binds us all together and, as a result of giving to others, we become happier and more content as we focus more on people and less on things. After all, it’s the people around us who bring the greatest joys in life, while the novelty of things quickly wears off.
The possessions we have provide us with convenience and fleeting pleasure, but we live for the people in our lives, and hopefully we are able to give to them as much as we receive in turn. As Winston Churchill so brilliantly put it, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”