Did you know that we may be “hard-wired” for generosity? Using neuroimaging studies, neuroscientist Richard Davidson has discovered four distinct circuits in the human brain that affect lasting well-being. One of them is the ability to be generous.
Davidson finds that healthy brains actually “feel good” when helping others, being helped by others, and witnessing acts of generosity. Author David Abrams concludes that there is “strong and compelling research that we come factory equipped for cooperation, compassion and generosity” (The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, 2016).
So why aren’t we all more giving? Because our consumerist culture, our upbringing and our life experiences often disrupt these natural tendencies. Open and trusting as children, we gradually develop a critical mindset. We become envious, suspicious, and fearful – of other people, of being taken advantage of, of not having enough ourselves.
With these habits of mind, we count our burdens more than our blessings. We become tightfisted rather than openhanded. But we can overcome these negative thought patterns.
Learning to be Grateful
In The Book of Joy, which is based on a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the two spiritual leaders discuss eight virtues necessary for a happy life and a peaceful world. Gratitude (acknowledging how fortunate we are) and generosity (giving freely and with love) are among them, and they are closely related.
Archbishop Tutu sees gratitude as the most effective antidote for envy. “I think one of the best ways you can counter it is that old one of counting your blessings. That might sound very old, old, old, old, old grandfather-style, but yes, it does help.”
This doesn’t mean that we put our head in the sand and ignore all the problems around us. We see those problems and do what we can to help solve them, but we remain calm in the midst of the turmoil. We try to follow the serenity prayer – accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can, and learning to know the difference.
Professor Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in the science of gratitude, says that gratitude includes two components. The first is acknowledging the gifts and benefits (blessings) we have received. The second is recognizing that the sources of these gifts are largely outside ourselves – other people, opportunities afforded us through birth or circumstance, lucky breaks, maybe even a higher power. When we are truly grateful, we recognize our interdependence – how we are all supported and affirmed by others (“Why Gratitude is Good,” 2010).
The Benefits of Gratitude
Besides being a natural human tendency, gratitude is good for us.
In his studies of over 1000 people, ages 8-80, Emmons and his colleagues found that people who practice gratitude report better physical health (lower blood pressure, fewer aches and pains, better sleep); psychological well-being (more positive emotions, more alertness, less depression); and social integration (more helpfulness, more compassion, less loneliness and isolation).
Gratitude makes us more generous. “When we recognize all that we have been given, it is our natural response to want to care for and give to others,” says Abrams. Indeed, Emmons has found that people with a strong disposition toward gratitude are rated as more helpful and giving by people in their social networks and more likely to offer emotional support to others.
There are many ways to be generous. We can always give money and donations, but sometimes people benefit more from kind words and gestures. We can give our time and experience, and we can offer spiritual resources, such as wisdom and moral teachings.
In a world where so many people are distracted, giving our full attention through what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” can be a great gift to others. By being fully present and listening thoughtfully, we show that we want to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and we patiently summon “our own best self” and our “best words and questions” to connect on a deeper level (Becoming Wise, 2017).
Generous listening reflects the Buddhist concept of loving kindness or benevolent and active interest in others, known and unknown. We recognize our place “in the intricate, interdependent network of life” (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, http://ei.yale.edu/what-is-gratitude/). As the Dali Lama points out, when we feel connected to all sentient beings at this most basic level, we will never feel lonely.
But Isn’t It Depressing?
As a retiree, I have a lot of unscheduled time, so I give it away by volunteering at a local hospice and a cat shelter. When I talk to people about those activities, someone invariably says, “Isn’t it depressing?”
Here’s my answer: It is sometimes sad, but it is never depressing, by which I mean suppressing of the spirit. In fact, I am often uplifted by my interactions with people and animals who are vulnerable and in need of care. I have the perfect opportunity to practice compassion and loving kindness, and I have become more grateful.
Through hospice, I recognize and appreciate my enduring health and my abilities – to drive, to navigate through the day without physical or mental limitations, to take care of myself and my home, to speak and make my needs known, and to anticipate the future, not just tomorrow, but next year and hopefully many more years to come.
Through the shelter, I am grateful for the opportunity to help care for and socialize the cats so they are more adoptable and better able to give and receive love. I am constantly reminded of the special bonds we create with animals, and I value the many blessings my own pets have brought into my life over the years.
These are the thanks I get for giving.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Most of us feel grateful sometimes, but the kind of gratitude that the Dali Lama and Archbishop Tutu are talking about – the kind that serves as a pillar for joyful living – takes practice. It is not a passing feeling but a consistent state of mind. As the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence explains, “It’s not just a feeling outside your control that arrives willy-nilly. It’s more like a radio channel: you can choose at any time to tune in” to what is always, already there (http://ei.yale.edu/what-is-gratitude).
Volunteering helps me find the channel, and daily gratitude practices, such as keeping a gratitude journal, help me stay tuned in. Below are some other helpful practices, suggested by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who developed a website to teach us how to live gratefully (http://www.gratefulness.org).
- Meditate on someone for whom you are grateful. Rest in the memory of this person, and notice what happens in your emotions and your body.
- Turn all your “waiting moments” into moments of heightened awareness. When you are stuck at a red light, what do you see, hear and feel that you are grateful for? (A clear sky? A warm coat? A good song on the radio?)
- When eating a meal, think of all who have made the meal possible, including the farmers, the grocers and the cooks. Feel your gratitude, and dedicate the meal to that “great fullness.”
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a researcher, writer and retired English professor. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. (See Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Lifestory Writing, 2000 and Endnotes: An Intimate Look at the End of Life, 2008). Most recently, as a hospice volunteer whose 98-year-old mother is a hospice patient, she has been exploring the meaning of death and dying. In our series on “Heart and Soul,” she will consider how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.