Science and Reason: The Science of Generosity

I like to think of the world as a warm and friendly place in which to live.  I like to think that people are kind and generous and, on a good day, compassionate.

I found a study done by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, awarded a grant to study why American Christians had been decreasing their donations to church.  Dr Christian Smith and his graduate students followed 2000 people for 5 years, compiling all sorts of data about giving and motivation.  Dr Smith and Hilary Davidson published the biggest surprise of all in a book entitled The Paradox of Giving.  The paradox is that the more people give away, the better off they themselves become.  People who practice generosity are healthier for it.  They have lower blood pressure; suffer less from depression and stress in general.  All sorts of neurochemical changes take place in their brains, including the production of a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin is involved in social bonding, especially that of mothers and their new-born infants  The response of well-being is so well documented that it is referred to as the ‘helper’s high.’ And, generosity is contagious.  People who are the recipients of acts of generosity are more likely to be generous themselves, to pay-it-forward, possibly as a result of breathing in all that oxytocin from other people.

And there’s more good news!  The health benefits of giving are not restricted to those who donate money. People who donate their time also have improved health outlooks.  They can volunteer at a school, share cookies with a neighbor or stop to help a motorist stranded on the side of the road.  Even holding the door at the grocery store for someone behind you, gives you a little lift, better than working out at the gym.

As much as I was thrilled to hear that the practice of generosity was mutually beneficial and contagious, I had to wonder why there wasn’t more of it.  IF 59% of the people studied by Notre Dame were donating, what were the other 41% doing?

The Center for the Greater Good at the University of California-Berkeley, asked the same question.  They used the activity of the vagus nerve to determine the extent of their subject’s compassion.  The vagus nerve runs throughout your body, from your brain to your guts and is responsible of all sorts of involuntary activity.  And the more your vagus nerve lights up, the more compassion you feel.

Their startling discovery was these people, these non-donators, were more likely to be financially better off.  The Center conducted an experiment that showed that poor people give higher portions of their money to charity. Poor people assist others more often than wealthy people, show more compassion. And poor people have greater social connections because they need to have more skin in the game.  Without funds to fix their problems they need to rely on other people for help.

Dacher Keltner, professor of Psychology at Berkley, explained it simply:  Wealthier people have taken a lot of suffering out of their environments.  Kids are healthier, they live in safer neighborhoods, and they live longer.   Consequently, wealthier people have lost exposure to suffering and they just don’t see the rest of the world.  It is not by accident that needle-of-compassion in American politics has moved from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of my youth to the self-interest of Reagonomics, to the idea that help encourages laziness and dependency.

I wondered: Where could I find some place that would support a practice of generosity?  Where could I find a place to practice generosity on a regular basis, say once a week or so? And where could I find other people who had the curiosity and courage to develop practices of compassion on their own?

And then I remembered:  I am part of a religious tradition that preaches generosity and compassion.  I am part of a religious tradition that breathes generosity and compassion all thru its seven principles and purposes.   I belong to a church where 1/3 of its mission statement is about compassion, where every month the faith development program teaches us different spiritual practices so that we may put our compassion into action.  I can open my heart right here, with you as you open yours.

We have been successful as a species because we have always shared our resources; lone individuals do not last long in the wild.  We have always been in search of connection to others and to something greater than ourselves.  Here at church, we call these objects of our search Intimacy and Ultimacy.  Many of us come to church to experience that for ourselves; and like many things in this life, it is best experienced when you give it away to others as they hold out the chalices of their being.


We must practice generosity if we wish to see compassion in the world, not only with our money and our time but first and foremost with our heart, it is the greatest of all gifts.  If we wish to embody Curiosity, Compassion and Courage, then we must practice them with regularity so that we will see needs when they are in front of us.  And when we are faced with a need we will know how to respond.

Karen Smith

(an edited version of the homily given by Karen at UUCG on Feb. 28, 2016)

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1 Response to Science and Reason: The Science of Generosity

  1. Lydia says:

    Karen you such an inspiration!

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