Understanding Generosity

See also: Friendliness

Generous people are able and willing to give.

They give both financially and of themselves, in a way that benefits the recipient. Their gifts may include time, money, things, and encouragement.

Generous people are also able to receive in such a way that the giver gains from the interchange. How do they do this? Their actions are motivated by the needs of others, and not of themselves.

A Definition of Generosity

generous, adj. of a noble nature: liberal: bountiful: invigorating in its nature.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1988 Edition

The root of the word ‘generous’ is in the Latin word genus, meaning birth, and generosus, meaning of noble birth. It seems likely, therefore, that the word reflects some kind of feudal responsibility towards those less well off, and an element of looking after those who need help, simply because you can, and therefore should, help them.

Generosity in Practice

We can probably all agree that when we talk about someone being generous, we mean that they give without asking for anything back, and in a way that benefits those receiving. Generosity is almost universally agreed to be a good quality. But what does it really mean in everyday life?

Generous people earn their money well. That is, they engage in work in a way that is in line with their principles, and not illegal or immoral. They use what they need for their own requirements, including leisure, luxury, and security, and are then able to use the rest for the good of others.

But generous people also have the right attitude to money and wealth. Money is treated appropriately: as a means to acquire the things that you need, and not as an end in itself. They are therefore able to spend money well on others, and not just on themselves.

Generosity is also not just about money. Generous people may be financially poor, but they still give their time and energy to others. The key is to engage with others for their benefit, with no thought of the reward that may accrue as a result.

When generous people receive something from others, whether that is a gift, time or encouragement, they are grateful and express this gratitude in a way that is appropriate.

Put simply, generous people give for the benefit of others, without counting the cost, and without expecting anything in return.

The Benefits of Generosity

It may seem odd to talk about the benefits of generosity. After all, we have just said that generous people give without expecting a reward.

But the rewards of generosity go far beyond the simple quid pro quo of bartering or trading.

Acting generously helps to make you feel good, because you are helping others. You should not, of course, give to satisfy your ego, because that is not generosity, but there is something very satisfying about giving what you can to help someone else.

Giving generously of yourself will also help you to grow as a person.

Generous people therefore tend to make and sustain good friendships, built on solid foundations, and hopefully mutual regard and generosity.

When Should you Give?

Aristotle, always a useful guide to exercising virtues, suggested that generous people gave when others needed and they had something that could help. That means that you have an opportunity to act generously whenever you see someone in need and you are able to help.

Aristotle also suggested that generosity was measured against how much someone had to give. Someone with millions of pounds can give much more than those with less money. However, the person with less money may be considered more generous if they give a larger proportion of their surplus.

This view is echoed by many world religions, including Christianity. Jesus, for example, commented on the example of a poor widow.

The Widow’s Offering

Jesus saw people giving gifts and offerings to the temple. Among them was a poor widow who put in two very small copper coins.

He said to those around him:

Look, the widow there has put in much more than any of the others. They all gave gifts which were only a very small part of their total wealth. She, however, has given nearly all she has to live on.

The ‘Flip Side’ of Generosity

All virtues have a ‘flip side’ or, more usually, two: one for excess and one for not going far enough.

In the case of generosity, these two are selfishness, which is not being generous enough or taking more than you need, and wasteful, which is giving too much when it is not needed.

Neither selfishness or wastefulness are attractive qualities and, as so often, it is important to find a balance.

In the case of generosity, the balance lies in focusing on the needs of those to whom you are giving. If you give what you can afford to help meet their needs then that will be generous.

Using this definition, it would be possible to argue that the widow in Jesus’ parable was in fact being wasteful: she gave more than she could afford, and left herself in need.

However, the precise balance point is up to the individual concerned. The widow obviously felt that she had enough without those coins, and that it was appropriate to give them away.

Guidelines for Generosity

Based on Aristotle, via a book by Curzer, there are some simple steps to take to practise generosity:

1. Give enough so that it is meaningful and useful, and give to people who you think will use it wisely, not those who will squander it.

Someone who gives without worrying about whether the money will be spent wisely may still be considered generous, but may not be acting ‘well’. Giving generously is about helping to meet the needs of others. Knowing that someone is going to spend the money on drink or drugs is not helping to meet their needs.

2. Do not give so much that you cannot meet your own needs

It is especially important not to give so much that you are in danger of enriching someone else at your expense.

3. Be gracious in accepting the appropriate gifts of others

While you should always be gracious in accepting gifts from others, you do need to be aware of whether or not they can afford the gift. The temple authorities might have done well to have given the widow back half of her offering on the grounds that she could not really afford to give it all.

4. Generosity is not about personal gain

It is particularly important to ensure that you never exploit others for personal gain.

Finding the Balance

In many ways, it is easier to find the balance point in generosity than in some of the other virtues that you may wish to develop.

Thinking about what constitutes selfish and wasteful will give some easy pointers to the wrong behaviours. True generosity requires giving what you can afford to help others, and being gracious in receiving from others only what they can afford to give.

It is perhaps easier to articulate than to do, but almost all of us would recognise it as a good thing and something worth striving to achieve.