The Benefits of Kindness and Generosity

Creating more meaning in your life through giving without expectation

“Generosity is exactly this: to give that which is dearest to us. It is an act that transform us.” ~ Piero Ferrucci

I think you will agree that, in many ways, we have become a more selfish, self-centered, and, even, meaner society. Many of us rarely go out of our way to help one another without wondering “What will I get out of this interaction…behavior…gift?” Companies that we believed were there to help us, have placed more emphasis on the bottom line than on serving the greater good. Even our social media interactions have become cold and often threatening. As a society we appear to be at a breaking point. We will, either, come together in the spirit of kindness or we will completely disappear down the rabbit hole of an “each person for themselves” mentality.

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Yet, all is not lost. There are also many who have been awakened and who have made a conscious effort to choose the former, rather than be fated to the latter. I tend to be an optimist, and there is recent evidence that my optimism is not unfounded. I have witnessed more and more people asking, “What can I do to make a difference in the world? How can I be of service?”

Many retirees are choosing to go back to work or to volunteer in ways that will have an impact on the world, helping those who are most in need. Furthermore, many young people are now choosing careers, motivated by the goal of being impactful global citizens and making a “difference,” rather than filling their own bank accounts. There is a unifying realization among us that we don’t want to live in an angry world and that the antidote to meanness is, as Ghandi said, to “be the change you want to see in the world,” and intentionally engage in acts of kindness and generosity.

Acting with such benevolence isn’t all about self-sacrifice. The act of giving actually has many benefits to the giver. The catch is that these benefits are only available to us when we have no expectations of receiving anything in return. “Whatever the gift,” Peiro Ferucci writes in his book, The Power of Kindness, “one precondition is essential: To offer, in the moment of giving, all of ourselves. Generosity that is unwilling or cold or distracted is a contradiction. When you are generous, you do not spare yourself.” The research shows that the expectation of something in return, including the receiver’s gratitude, or, even, that our gift be used in a way that we think it should, actually diminish the benefits to us when we give.

In their book, The New Health Rules, Dr. Frank Lipman and Danielle Claro recommend, “Forget pay-it-forward or anything about karma. This is just about being nice and good with no expectations of reciprocity or personal gain. Let someone cut ahead of you in line, listen to someone who needs an ear, give a compliment you really mean. Make your default mode one of generosity. It’s a nice way to live and it’s contagious.”

Generosity as a Spiritual Path
“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good,” wrote English essayist, Samuel Johnson.

Generosity is seen as a core virtue in most religions and spiritual paths. In Christianity, St. Francis of Assisi is known for saying, “For it is in giving that we receive.” The Buddha taught that when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward, we give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient, and that we practice giving to release greed and self-clinging. Persian Poet Hafiz of Shiraz said, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”

Health Benefits of Generosity
Several recent studies have found that being generous increases our ability to cope with physical pain and symptoms of chronic diseases. Volunteering has been associated with significant decreases in blood pressure, stomach acid, and cholesterol levels, and increased Immunoglobin-A, which boosts our immune system. In fact, volunteering has been correlated with a lowered risk of mortality in older adults, decreased symptoms of stress, and better sleep. This is due to the phenomenon called “the helper’s high,” which is a release of endorphins (those natural mood-elevating and pain-reducing chemicals produced by the brain) when we engage in an act of generosity.

What has been called the “Mother Teresa effect” was found when participants of a study had an increase of immunoglobin-A when viewing videos of Mother Teresa helping people. That study concluded that our generosity not only benefits the recipients and ourselves, but also benefits those who observe it.

There has been an ongoing study at the University of Notre Dame, led by researchers Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson, called the “Science of Generosity Initiative.” Their findings have shown that those people who demonstrate more generosity tend to be emotionally happier, physically healthier, and to have a greater feeling of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Generosity and Finding Meaning
However we do it, one of the most powerful things we can do to find meaning in our own lives is to help others. Finding meaning and purpose in our daily lives will bring joy to our lives and enthusiasm to pursue our own dreams (see my blog, Follow Your Dream No Matter Your Age). Austrian Psychiatrist, Dr. Vicktor Frankl wrote, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed…when we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Dr. Frankl was a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread…They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He found that one of the most powerful acts for keeping oneself sane during such an insane situation was to find meaning in helping other people.

Ways to Give
“We can contribute a bit of our time, a small donation, a book we have already read,” writes Ferrucci. “Or we can donate blood or bone marrow, or a huge effort, or a large part of our savings.” We can give money or objects to someone in need, we can give our time, or we can give practical help or advice. We can also volunteer at a soup kitchen, help our neighbors, or make someone who is feeling blue laugh. Whatever you give, whether it’s time, money, or help, doing it without expectation or judgment will create benefit, not only to the receivers of your generosity and to the community, but the biggest benefit might be to you.

As Ferrucci writes, “After it, we will be poorer, but we will feel richer. Perhaps we will feel less equipped and secure, but we will be freer. We will have made the world we live in a little kinder.” Finally, be generous because, as the late great folk singer, Pete Seeger, said, “Being generous of spirit is a wonderful way to live.”

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