Monday, August 4, 2008

Key to Prosperity -- Generosity

Prosperity is about choices and attitudes more than it is about a balance sheet. That is to say, people can feel prosperous at a number of disparate income levels. If your income were low, you might still feel prosperous because of options open to you in the future or a lifestyle that gave you the things you needed without a lot of money. If your income were high, you might still feel poor because of debt or unrealistic standards.

The truth is that human beings are notoriously bad at objective comparison. We suck at rating relative risk, for example. We make choices based on emotion instead of reason. And we are terrible at ranking economic standing. We will harshly criticize ourselves and make ourselves unhappy by comparing what we have to people on TV or people with great wealth. But we will avoid comparisons of our own situation with those who have far less (perhaps out of guilt?).

When we do we realize that, however much we feel we are struggling, we have great wealth compared to many in this world.

More on the psychological effects of feeling prosperous or poor when I talk about appreciation. But for now, the key is to understand that when we feel a sense of prosperity and have an awareness that others have less than we do, we also realize that we have enough to share. This willingness to be generous has very little to do with the amount of money we make. In fact, while the very wealthy contribute huge amounts to charity, poor people contribute a higher percent of their income.

A Conde' Nast article talks about this well-researched fact:

...Americans at the bottom of the income-distribution pyramid are the country's biggest givers per capita...The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that households with incomes below $20,000 gave a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than did any other income group: 4.6 percent, on average. As income increased, the percentage given away declined: Households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 donated 2.5 percent or less. Only at high income levels did the percentage begin to rise again: For households with incomes over $100,000, the number was 3.1 percent.
Check out the graph, up close and personal.

So the poorest working households give the most as a percentage of income. The wealthy also give a bit more. But the middle class? Not so much. But why should that be?

...the most common explanation for the lack of giving is a perceived deficiency of means: Two-thirds of nondonors say that they simply cannot afford to give...

If the poor are doing so much giving, who are the folks who claimed in Independent Sector's 2001 survey that they can't afford to? Ironically, this is a typical upper-income excuse. Among the people with above-average incomes who did not give charitably in the year 2000, a majority of survey respondents said they didn't have enough money. And they probably believe it. We live in a country in which three out of five families carry balances on their credit cards from month to month and the average household debt for consumer items is about $18,000.

So despite the face, that these people have above-average income, their perception is that they are very poor. Too poor to give to others. Ironic indeed as routinely feeling poor isn't conducive to a prosperous life. But more ironic still, it turns out that giving actually can make you richer.

According to this Entrepreneur article (you'll have to watch or skip an ad), research has proven what the religious and spiritual alike have been saying for ages: "giving stimulates prosperity, for both individuals and nations."

Now, according to this research it's not just that earning more makes you give more (in dollars, we already know that many who earn little give a great percentage away) but that giving more makes you earn more.

More giving doesn’t just correlate with higher income; it causes higher income. And not just a little. Imagine two families that are identical in size, age, race, education, religion, and politics. The only difference is that this year the first family gives away $100 more than the second. Based on my analysis of the S.C.C.B.S. survey, the first family will, on average, earn $375 more as a result of its generosity.
The article lists a few practical reasons for this fact, but the mechanism isn't as important as the fact. When you give, you get. And, in a wonderful win-win situation, others get too.

So generosity leads to prosperity on two levels: First, it helps us feel like we have not just enough but enough to share, which leads to feeling more prosperous. Second, it actually makes us more prosperous as we literally get back from giving.

Useful Quotes on Generosity*:

Generosity will be the harvest of life.
Freshen the heart of the world by generosity;
For ever be steadfast in generosity;

Since the Creator of the soul is beneficent.

Shaykh Sadi, quoted
in The Glory of the Shia World, by P. M. Sykes and Khan Bahadur Ahmad din Khan

The purpose of religion is not to construct beautiful buildings, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity and love. Every world religion, no matter what its philosophical view, is founded first and foremost on the precept that we must reduce our selfishness and serve others.
Universal Responsibility and Our Global Environment, His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
2 Corinthians 9:10-11, Holy Bible

[T]he Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
Acts 20:35b, Holy Bible

Giving is good, but taking is bad and brings death.

Hesiod (c. 8th century B.C.), Greek didactic poet. Works and Days, 356.

Money-giving is a very good criterion … of a person’s mental health. Generous people are rarely mentally ill people.

Dr Karl A Menninger, The World: Medicine: Psychiatry & Psychology

Fire in heaven above:
Thus the superior man curbs evil and furthers good,
And thereby obeys the benevolent will of heaven.
I Ching

* As always: Sacred Texts,,, and I Ching online

Personally, I find generous giving difficult (which is an embarrassing thing to admit). It's difficult for me to give and, in a related twist, it's difficult for me to save. The same uncomfortable feeling I get when I contemplate giving money away is the same feeling that I get when I contemplate saving it -- particularly someplace where I can't easily access it. It's a nervous, out of control feeling. Kind of a "but what if I need that money" excuse that just won't hold up in the objective light of day. I can't tell you the number of times I've started to either sign up to give to charity or sign up for some investment vehicle and found myself stuck before I could complete the task.

In addition, my formative experience was to see friendship as some kind of medium of exchange. Either things were equitable in the friendship or they were inequitable (ie they were "taking advantage" of you). If you gave a housewarming party, for example, you'd only invite those people who helped you move. If you had something to share, you'd only share it with those who'd already shared with you. In fact, these strictures were specifically for those who you were close to. Complete strangers had no such obligation.

I eventually realized that both these attitudes are very harmful. The financial aspect is a phobia plain and simple, probably due to some poverty in my young adulthood. The personal aspect is simply an attitude problem that I hate and desperately want to change. I don't think either attitude is conducive to prosperity.

Over the years I've worked hard to develop the ability to have a more generous spirit. To give hospitality to friends and kindness to strangers. To share what I had in terms of food or space in my house with those people who I cared about. This is no strings attached giving; I try to keep any thought of reciprocation out of it. Now I'm working on financial generosity. I started putting money in accounts that I can't currently access. I make a regular donation to Modest Needs (and highly recommend them). I'm pushing myself to give more to people -- both to strangers and to those whom I care about. I also seek out people with generous spirits and want to emulate them. They not only set a good example for me but are just plain wonderful people and friends.

And I have noticed that being generous seems to make me feel more prosperous and bring good things my way.

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