The Paradox of Generosity


Those who give, receive. It’s an insight found in many spiritual traditions, and one now confirmed by research. In their new book, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, sociologists at the University of Notre Dame, show how those who give of their time, concern, and money tend to be happier, healthier, and more satisfied with life. Their work is part of the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

“America has a generosity problem,” Smith and Davidson explain. “Despite our relative wealth and voluntarist spirit, the majority of us clutch tightly to our pocketbooks and schedules. According to our data collected with the Science of Generosity, only 3 percent of American adults give away 10 percent or more of their income.” Furthermore, as Richard Stearns notes in a piece for the Huffington Post, “Interestingly, it is the poorest income group that is the most generous. Those who make less than $12,499 annually give away 2.2 percent of their income. The wealthiest, making more than $90,000, are half that generous.”

The book is generating substantial media interest. Its findings were discussed on WPR’s The Joy Cardin Show. The Chronicle of Philanthropy asked whether happier people are more inclined to give anyway, a question that Smith and Davidson address: their research suggests that it is sustained generosity that produces happiness.

Smith and Davidson are not, however, trying to point fingers. In a piece for PBS Newshour, they note that “We simply observe that at least some Americans probably have the opportunity and ability to increase their practices of relational generosity, and thereby enjoy the health, happiness, and purpose benefits that tend to come along with that.”