Happiness Habit 5: Living generously and how this benefits you and others
Would you like to become happier and grow your reputation at work and home?
There’s a simple and free way to head in this direction.
How do you feel when someone does a nice thing for you? For example, a colleague helps you with a difficult task without you asking for help.
Or when a patient or client compliments you on your work, expressing their gratitude?
Perhaps a friend notices you’ve had a hard week and drops a note with words to encourage you.
Or on your birthday, a family member gives you an expensive gift you know would be challenging for them to afford. How do you feel?
Chances are you feel grateful and connected. These are examples of altruism and generosity which amplify our happiness, both when we receive and when we give.
Generosity is a character virtue. When we are generous as a habit, we receive joy, rich relationships and meaning in what we do.
Altruism and generosity mean different things
Researchers here  define altruism as giving more than is expected. They provide an example of giving 25c to a homeless person as altruistic because the person didn’t expect anything, whereas generosity is giving liberally and abundantly such as giving $20 to the homeless person.
When we are generous, this comes at a higher cost to us. It takes thinking, planning, action and sometimes money.
What motivates us to be generous in the first place if it comes at a cost?
There are likely many reasons we decide to be generous, but here a few to think about:
- The desire to be liked and accepted by others. In the study mentioned above , the researchers found when people were infused with oxytocin (the relationship hormone), they were more likely to act generously in giving money.
- To receive something in return, which is termed reciprocal altruism . For example, we are kind to a rude colleague because we hope to receive kindness in return.
- To live to our values and integrity. When we value generosity as important and necessary, we want to live congruently with that value. For example, we may dislike a relative but continue conversation with them because we value this behaviour. This takes self control and strength.
- To build our reputation as a professional. When we’re competent and generous, we build others with our words and actions and are more likely to be seen as kind and professional.
But sometimes it’s hard to be generous because we face many challenges in our busy lives.
The challenge of busyness and responsibility
We barely have time to be generous. We chose a caring profession and we love our friends and family, which shows we are generous people. But working in demanding careers, raising families, and meeting our responsibilities takes the bulk of our time and depletes our energy.
When we’re tired or overwhelmed, we focus on essential tasks. Basic demands include our job roles and looking after our homes, family and health. To plan generous acts is a challenge.
Knowing the benefits of being generous helps us make the leap to generosity as a habit.
8 benefits of being a consistently generous person
- When we provide help to others we are more likely to receive it .
- We receive appreciation and love from another person. This is the grateful colleague or the happiness of your partner when you encourage them after a hard day. Appreciation helps us feel valued.
- We are distracted from our own worries and problems for a while as we meet the needs of others people. For example, I have chronic pain from an injury. The pain flares up at times and one of the ways I cope is to be distracted helping my kids and doing things they need. When I put them first, it helps take my mind off the pain and worry.
- Our health is better. Michael Hyatt summarizes these benefits including better blood pressure and a lower risk of dementia, depression and anxiety.
- We influence others to be generous in the broader context of their lives. This is the pay it forward concept, otherwise termed socially contagious generosity. However, in the research above, participants didn’t always help when they saw another person giving the help. Someone else was assisting so why contribute? This is the bystander effect. On the other hand, people are more likely to help if their reputation is at stake. For example, at work we see a colleague speaking kindly to a rude client, therefore we respect their patience and are more likely to be patient.
- Generosity builds our reputation as a kind, agreeable person. In psychology, agreeableness is one of the big five personality traits. Agreeable people are “more sociable, aim to please other people and are willing to help those in need. As a result, agreeable people tend to work well as part of a team. During arguments or times of conflict, they will seek to resolve, rather than prolong, confrontation” . We can’t please everyone, however, being kind and friendly improves relationships because we are seen as givers and not takers.
Ideas for acts of generosity
- Start with generosity toward yourself using self compassion. When you make a mistake, give yourself the kindness you would give to someone you love. When you are compassionate with yourself, you are better able to be this way with others. Research shows compassion and altruism combined lead to generosity .
- Increase positive emotions such as joy and gratitude. When we are happy, we give more. Conversely when we give more, we are happier.
- Expand the definition of generosity beyond money and gifts. Write kind notes, send thankful emails, and speak words of appreciation to people in your life.
- Try the habit of noticing. This is paying attention to the good others do and thanking them often.
- When other people succeed, acknowledge what they have accomplished.
- Start a giving jar with your kids. Fill the jar with names of people at work and home. Each week or month pull out a name and do something nice for that person.
- Listen to hear and understand. In the words people say, we hear their needs and are able to find ways to help them.
- Increase your levels of oxytocin. Try hugging someone you love as this spurs us on to give to others.
All people (well most) want to be loved, appreciated and accepted. When we are generous as a habit, we meet the needs of others in simple ways. The side effects for us are health and joy as we build a community of generous people. I have a way to go in improving this habit so I hope you’ll join me in becoming the best version of ourselves.
Choose three people you care about. Next to each name, write something generous to offer them this month. Maybe a thank you note or text message encouraging them. After actioning these, how did you feel?
 Zak PJ, Stanton AA, Ahmadi S (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLOS ONE 2(11): e1128. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001128
 Tsvetkova M, Macy MW (2014) The Social Contagion of Generosity. PLOS ONE 9(2): e87275. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0087275