Generosity and the Need for Inexact Scorekeeping

The Paradox of Generosity, part 2

Jesus said:
"Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)
Losing your life – giving it away – is the only way to fully have a life. It may sound paradoxical, but we find it running through the world’s spiritual traditions. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us:
“Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.” (Proverbs 11:24)
A Hindu proverb says,
"They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing."
This ancient wisdom is reflected in our very language: the word "miserable” comes from the word “miser” – because we know that hoarding, protecting, and not giving makes us miserable.

Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson found a strong correlation between generosity and well-being. For well-being, they looked at five measures: self-reported happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression, and interest in personal growth.

People who give away at least 10 percent of their income are significantly more likely to say they are very happy and those who give less are more likely to be somewhat or very unhappy.

People who are generous with their volunteer time – who reported that they had volunteered in the previous year – are also more often very happy than those who didn’t.

Those who give 10 percent or more are in better health than those who do not. They also have greater purpose in life, less likelihood of depression, and enjoy greater personal growth.

Likewise, those who volunteer the most hours are in the best of health compared to those who volunteer less or not at all. Generosity with volunteer time also correlated with greater purpose in live, less likelihood of depression, and greater personal growth.

Correlation doesn’t tell us whether generosity causes well-being, or whether well-being causes generosity, or whether some third thing causes both. Researchers find that, yes, to some extent, already having positive attitude, being healthy and having more energy, does help one to be more generous. Nevertheless, the causality runs more in the opposite direction. Practicing generosity often fosters and reinforces positive emotions, reduces negative emotions, and this leads to greater happiness and health.
“Generosity often triggers chemical systems in the brain and body that increase pleasure and experiences of reward, reduce stress, and suppress pain,...Generosity increases personal agency and self-efficacy...— the exercise of one’s natural human powers and capacities to make things happen in the world, to affect or prevent changes one wishes to see happen....Generosity often creates positive meaningful social roles and personal self-identities....Generosity tends to reduce maladaptive self-absorption....Practicing generosity requires and reinforces the perception of living in a world of abundance and blessing....[It] expands the number and density of social-network relational ties....Generosity tends to promote increased learning about the world...[and] increase givers’ physical activity.” (Smith and Davidson)
When we get consumed by the issues we deal with at work or at home, and all our energies can revolve around our own stuff, we can grow suspicious and cynical. Intentional practice of generosity can break us out of that cocoon of self-absorption. Focus on life’s unfairness can lead to anger and depression, but helping others puts our own problems in perspective. Living in the perception of scarcity makes us ungenerous, but practicing generosity helps re-orient us toward abundance, toward the realization, “I may not have a lot, but I’ve got plenty.” As Smith and Davidson conclude:
“In multiple, complex, and interacting ways, bodies, brains, spirits, minds, and social relationships are stimulated, connected and energized by generous practices in ways that are good for people.” (95)
Empirical findings support the ancient wisdom that
“generosity tends to nurture love in the giver, and love stands at the heart of human flourishing.” (97)
So, yes, give it away. Giving we receive; grasping we lose.

The Importance of Inexact Scorekeeping

Think of it this way. The most important and valuable relationships in our lives – our spouses, if we have them, parents, children, closest friends – those relationships depend on what I call inexact scorekeeping. The very inexactness is the crucial thing. Yes, there’s a level of scorekeeping. If your spouse is putting a lot more into the maintenance of household and relationship than you are, it gets noticed. Our most important relationships depend on a feeling of reciprocity. That’s how both parties reassure each other that they care about the relationship and about each other. That’s how each party knows she or he isn’t just being taken advantage of. But it is crucial to the nature of those deep and nourishing relationships that the scorekeeping must be inexact. It’s gotta be rough and impressionistic.

If you are married, you and your spouse might occasionally make joking reference to “husband points” – or “wife points.” Normally, this sort of banter is a way for a couple to reference the important role of reciprocity while keeping a sense of humor about it. But if you were to literally keep a complete running tally of each partner’s point totals – following a chart that specified the point value of washing dishes, taking out garbage, vacuuming rug, going shopping, and everything else -- that would not be good for the relationship. Fairness does matter in a relationship, but too much emphasis of precise fairness chokes out love. Some level of reciprocity is necessary, but equally necessary is that the scorekeeping be imprecise, inexact. In that inexactness is the space for meaningful love.

There are some areas of life where we do want precise scorekeeping – and that’s what money is for. Money is our way of keeping score. The market sets prices for goods, services, wages, and salary, or you negotiate them, and it functions like having a points chart. You do things for your boss, or your customers or clients, and you get points, which entitles you to get goods and services from others. The scorekeeping is pretty exact, and a big part of life that needs that. Indeed, a large part of social justice involves making sure people have fair opportunities to earn points, are paid fairly, and are charged fairly within a market system equally accessible to all. It is both true and important that our national scorekeeping system is broken in a lot of ways that need attention and fixing.

Beyond that, though, our hearts and spirits – our well-being – need relationships where the scorekeeping is kept vague and impressionistically approximate, where there is considerable play in what counts as equitable enough. We need to be in relationships free of the market's ruthless demand of exactness, relationships that are about more than trade, more than buying and selling ourselves to each other. Inexactness creates the room for the partners in the relationship to give without thinking of what they're earning by giving – to give just for the joy of giving to the other.

And that’s so important for a full and good human life. It is the blessing and grace we were made for.

The practice of generosity transforms your relationship to your world because it renders the scorekeeping inexact. It brings to your relationship with the world a space of liberation from marketplace precision -- a space of blessing and grace otherwise crowded out by exactness of scorekeeping.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "The Paradox of Generosity"
See also
Part 1: Give It Away
Part 3: Ten Percent

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