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Generosity Makes People Happier, Healthier, and Purpose-Driven — All It Takes Is Practice

A sociologist behind the most comprehensive study ever of American generosity explains why giving is good for us, why we don't do it enough, and how to practice it.

This article was produced with our friends at DEWAR’S, who celebrate the selfless spirit of fathers everywhere who give of themselves for those they love.

Every culture in every era has rolled out some variation of the threadbare maxim, “’Tis better to give than to receive.” Still, the platitude has been ignored of late. In 2014, the most comprehensive study ever of Americans’ giving habits found that fewer than three percent give a tenth or more of their income to charity, 86 percent donate less than 2 percent, and nearly half give nothing at all. That’s disappointing not simply because generosity is a cultural good, but because givers have been scientifically shown to receive  mental and social benefits.

Buy yourself a drink and you drink for a night. Buy a friend a bottle and you’ve got a drinking buddy for life.

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“Practicing generosity shifts peoples’ mindsets and worldviews from one of scarcity and fear to one of abundance,” explains University of Notre Dame sociologist Hilary Davidson. “That sounds really big because it is. It’s an entire shift in how we understand our place in the world.”

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Fortunately, all it takes to reap the benefits of generosity is the impulse to be generous and a little practice. That’s where Davidson can help. She and Christian Smith, the director of the Science of Generosity Initiative, have surveyed more than 2000 American households and followed up with 40 families in 12 states representing the widest possible range of demographics and giving styles. Their research team spent days with the families conducting in-depth interviews about how they practice generosity, how they grew up, and how they teach their kids about it. Not content, the team also collected and analyzed more than 1,000 photographs and other visual materials documenting families’ daily activities. Their findings were at once complicated and relatively simple.

The common thread was that the people in generous households – whether they had donated money, time, attention, or blood – were physically healthier, emotionally better able to avoid symptoms of depression. These people expressed a greater sense of purpose and a tendency toward happiness. And no, this wasn’t because of what they had to give.

“It didn’t matter if someone was living with federal assistance or was financially well-off,” Davidson added. “What mattered was they were able to step outside themselves and find purpose and meaning in giving some of what they have to others.”

She says that’s due to a combination of factors. Mentally and emotionally, giving boosts serotonin and suppresses cortisone levels in the brain, helping establish more empathy for others. On a more practical level, acts of generosity frequently require people to expand their circles and do physical labor, which has clear health benefits.

Dewar's scotch

Given the myriad benefits of charity, the question becomes: Why aren’t people giving constantly? Davidson has her theories. American culture has long championed individual success over collectivist accomplishment, which puts pressure on people both in terms of time and money to keep up with the Joneses while making it less likely they’ll lend the Joneses cash. There are also issues surrounding civic engagement. Because people move around a lot more today than they have historically, communities have been decentralized and neighborly favors have become less common. Finally, stress is presumed to be a major factor. Compared to Baby Boomers, Millennials have had a harder time finding jobs and assuring their own upward mobility.

Davidson is as sympathetic as can be expected of a generosity expert, but also thinks it’s time for a bit of introspection followed by a lot of action. “These are all understandable reasons,” she say, “but the challenge remains to find ways to step outside ourselves and trust our ability to give.”

To do that, the first step is recognizing that giving isn’t just about wanting to feel better about yourself. Giving is about giving. That bottle you gave a friend? It’s a better gift if you wanted it. And it’s a gift, for all concerned, when he pours you a drink.

“Practicing generosity, whether you see the person receiving the gift or not, allows us to see the full dignity of others, find friendships and connect with people outside our of our tribes over something valuable, important, and bigger than ourselves,” Davidson says. “In that sense, our worlds become bigger, more robust, and more exciting. People are happiest when they’re deeply connected with others.”

 

 

For a classic gift that’s never out of style, give a bottle of double-aged, extra smooth DEWAR’S 12 Blended Scotch Whisky. It’s dubbed “The Ancestor” after founder John Dewar, who knew back in 1846 that a fine Scotch is best shared with the world. The perfect token of generosity no matter what the occasion.