Once in a while, when I can’t sleep at night, I channel surf. Occasionally, I find a channel with a preacher promising that if I just send some money, I’ll get more money in return. I’ve been warned against believing in “prosperity gospel” — give money, get more back and maybe you’ll even be blessed with a Mercedes Benz — but sometimes I’m tempted to send a few dollars to see what happens. So far I’ve resisted.
I admit I’m intrigued by scriptures that could be used to support the idea. Proverbs 24 says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, and your barns will be filled with plenty, and your wine barrels will overflow.” 2 Cor. 8 says, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
The first time I recall hearing a serious discussion of generosity leading to benefits was when I became executive director of Mennonite Foundation. At orientation, personnel commented that it seemed as though people who were generous givers lived longer.
Not only did they live longer, they were happier than people who were stingy. It’s no coincidence that miser and miserable are etymologically related.
Do added benefits accrue to the generous giver? That question continues to be discussed. But there was little empirical data to answer the question.
However, University of Notre Dame professors Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson recently conducted a five-year study on this question. Their findings are published in The Paradox of Generosity.
The study drew from a survey of more than 2,000 participants, along with 60 interviews. They found people who are more generous are happier, suffer fewer illnesses and injuries, live with a greater sense of purpose and experience less depression. They also found that to achieve a better life, a person must practice generosity regularly. It is not a one-time effort. It needs to become a part of one’s everyday life.
Four forms of generosity were explored: giving away 10 percent of income, volunteering, relational generosity and neighborly generosity. The authors then examined the relationship of these forms of generosity against five measures of well-being: happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression and interest in personal growth.
While giving 10 percent and volunteering is generally understood, relational generosity was based on 10 questions that focused on emotional investment in friends and family. Neighborly generosity paid less attention to personal attention and emotions, but looked at friendliness, hospitality, assistance with chores and other activities of care.
The findings of the study confirm what many people have believed: Generous people do experience a greater sense of happiness, better health, less depression, greater purpose in living and higher interest in personal growth.
One particularly interesting finding was that more than half of the respondents who practiced neighborly generosity identified as being very happy, while only 20 percent identified as very happy in the group who practiced neighborly generosity the least. How we treat other people has an impact on our health and well-being.
The study did not attempt to explore the prosperity-gospel belief — give money and get more money. But I wonder if people who give away 10 percent or more of their income feel they have enough or are happier with their overall financial situation than those who aren’t as generous. My hunch is they are happier. I wonder why?
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.