What is Generosity?
They say human beings were created with both good and evil characteristics. In the Bahá’í writings this duality in human beings is portrayed differently—as if evil does not exist unto itself but is rather an absence of good characteristics. One of our goals in life is to develop our qualities to the point of perfection, through a lifetime of conscious effort, until the day we go to the other world with a chaste and goodly character. Among human characteristics there is a mysterious one called “generosity” to which we seldom pay attention. Often the public perception is that generosity is inherent and individuals are born either generous or stingy. However, according to research published by the University of Notre Dame, “Generosity is a learned character trait that involves both attitude and action.” Therefore, the belief that people were born with generosity is unfounded, but in our society today people are reluctant to give “generosity” a real chance to develop. No one feels the urgency to dedicate time to reflect on how he can become more generous, and there are no public debates on the topic.
With the age of computer technology and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scientists have recently discovered new information about how the brain reacts to generosity. Scientific studies now clearly demonstrate that human happiness, health, and longevity are closely connected to generosity, whether through monetary contributions or volunteer services. “The feel-good effects of giving begin in the brain. It’s called ‘Giver’s Glow’,” says Stephen Post, Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at New York’s Stony Brook University. The response is triggered by brain chemistry in the mesolimbic pathway, which recognizes rewarding stimuli. The attitude with which we give determines the impact of our generosity. “If it is meaningful donations, it can have a significant impact,” says Dr. Post, “but if it’s trivial or just grudging, probably not.” According to research led by Jorge Moll of the D’Or Institute, “thinking about giving money to a ‘meaningful cause’ engages the brain’s reward system.” Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson’s research entitled, “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose,” concludes that “generosity often triggers chemical systems in the brain and body that increase pleasure and experiences of reward, reduce stress, and suppress pain, which tend to lead to greater happiness and health.”
Obviously there are many ways to foster happiness in our lives like reflection, meditation, prayers, fasting and other spiritual practices; nonetheless, recent research shows that an important tool for finding happiness is the development of our ability to be generous, by learning to joyfully and sacrificially give our time and possessions. Scientists have also shown that the same elements of the brain that control bonding and trust also control generosity. When members of a community give ‘generously’ to a meaningful cause with an attitude of sacrifice, they eventually bond, develop trust, and become unified in their community. This could perchance be one of the many reasons that universal participation is encouraged toward the Bahá’í Funds. “The House of Justice appreciates… educating the … believers in the importance of contributing regularly and sacrificially to the Fund and it feels sure that you frequently remind them of the principles of universal participation...”
A second and related misconception about generosity is that it requires wealth—that the rich are obliged to be generous while the poor are exempt from giving. Today’s research clearly illustrates the opposite. Generosity is a skill that everyone must strive to develop, whether rich or poor, and it is only measured by the degree of “sacrifice.” No matter where we are in developing our ability to be generous we must continue to push further and break the chains of selfishness that insist, “Taking is gaining and giving is losing.” This is one of the most damaging philosophies promoted in the modern world. Researchers like Smith and Davidson have disproved it: "by giving we receive, by grasping we lose!"
The Secret of Right Living
Shoghi Effendi gives us the secret for right living when he says: “We must be like the fountain or spring that is continually emptying itself of all that it has and is continually being refilled from an invisible source. To be continually giving out for the good of our fellows undeterred by fear of poverty and reliant on the unfailing bounty of the Source of all wealth and all good—this is the secret of right living.” Therefore, when it comes to health and right living it is better to give sacrificially in a generous way than to hold in a desire of greed.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, “Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favour and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth.” Generous giving assists us to acquire certain characteristics that we could never imagine to gain otherwise. The merit and outcome of generous giving is a unique spiritual transformation.
“This is the Springtime of benevolent deeds, were ye of them that comprehend”, Bahá’u’lláh says. His Revelation has forever changed the definition of contribution in the path of God. What our forefathers were asked to do was to “make contributions;” what our generation is asked to do is to “make generous contributions.” Bahá’u’lláh says, “To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues.”
Civilization Envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh
The world around us is rapidly evolving as humanity passes through its adolescence. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on generous contribution can help fight the disparity between rich and poor that undermines global stability. The beloved Universal House of Justice says, “The future civilization envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh is a prosperous one, in which the vast resources of the world will be directed towards humanity’s elevation and regeneration, not its debasement and destruction.”
Exaltation of a human being in this world is through generously offering his time, energy, knowledge, and financial resources to the same world that offered it to him. In reality, generosity is a state of consciousness where we suddenly enter and recognize that all of our possessions are possessions of the universe that gave it to us with complete generosity. Therefore, as we practice generosity we are not giving our belongings to anyone, but rather returning what the universe gave us back to the universe--like unto freeing a bird from its cage.
Such a life of service to humanity—characterized by humility and detachment, not self-interest and ostentation—can help unleash the mysteries of generous giving.