When is an act of generosity not actually an act of generosity?
We like to think of ourselves as generally good and generous people with a giving nature, but have you ever stopped and wondered if there were any caveats or conditions to that generosity?
The benefits of generosity are easy enough to identify. It is the generosity of others that provide funding for many non-profit organizations who work for the betterment of the world. When everything is clean and above-board and we can trust our organizations then we know that our donations go towards actual good. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless. Generosity is one of the hallmarks of humanity in all its noble nature and many historic milestones in all aspects of society have been accomplished through remarkable acts of generosity from the population.
We cannot, however, deny or pretend not to acknowledge that generosity also benefits the generous.
Sometimes these little rewards for the giver are just that, little rewards meant to honestly express gratitude and appreciation. If you donate $1 to the Feed America campaign you get to write your name on a little cutout of a grocery bag that the grocery store displays at the register. If you donate blood at your local blood drive they might give you some cookies and juice (also to help replenish vital sugars) and send you on your way with a sticker that marks your act of generosity for the day. A ‘thank you’ can go a long way to reassure a generous giver that their contribution is appreciated and welcomed.
Now, let’s say you’re on a date with someone you particularly fancy. It’s come to the end of the meal and you of course offer to cover the check. When it comes time to calculate the tip you may be tempted to do two things. First, you will want to tip more than the standard amount and second, you will make every subtle effort possible to ensure that your date sees this wonderful, noble, and selfless act of generosity.
The next evening you are at a charity event hosted by your company. Everyone is enjoying a wonderful meal in an elegant banquet hall and the time has come for the partner organization to explain their mission statement and ask for the ‘generosity and kindness of fine folk such as yourselves’. You reach for a $5 bill in your pocket but notice that your boss is watching you from across the room. Suddenly, as if by some magic force, your $5 bill becomes a $20. You glance over. Make that $40. One more look. Okay fine, here’s $50 to save the rhinos of…Canada?!
Why do we do this? How can we explain how we act so differently when around certain people like romantic partners or employers? And more importantly, when does our act of generosity lose its generous spirit?
When it comes to finding a potential partner, most of us would say that ‘generosity’ would certainly be a desirable trait or at the very least, that ‘selfishness’ is a trait we’d like to avoid. During the beginning of a relationship we naturally desire to put our best food forward. We are punctual, organized, mature, and yes, of course, generous to a fault. If you were on a date with someone, wouldn’t it strike you as unappealing or odd if they couldn’t share? And similarly are we not so impressed and attracted to a person who, oh my, look at how generously he tips. Look at how giving he must be. Surely, this is a benefit for me to have a partner such as this.
At company events or outings we must remember that we are representatives not only of our individual selves but of the company as well. And as such our actions can either reflect negatively or positively on our employers. Your boss is looking to you to judge the extent of your generosity as an expression of your suitability to the company. If you look good, your boss looks good, which makes your boss’s boss look good, and so on and so forth. And while we are all admiring ourselves and patting each other on the back for our altruistic nature and celebrating our contributions, oh yes, apparently we saved some kids or some animals in some country. Right. That’s what it’s all about.
I do not think that enjoying some personal benefit from generosity is necessarily bad or detracts from the nobility of the gesture. To an extent. One of the reasons why generosity exists is because we can derive a certain sense of gratification and satisfaction from the act itself and I certainly do not wish to say we shouldn’t feel this way. When it is a cause we truly believe in or something close and personal to us, the simple act of giving can be cathartic and relieving. We give not only because it is good for others but because it also makes us feel good about ourselves. The problem is our sight is limited and often times we cannot see further than what is immediately in front of us. So how do we incentivize an entire population to care about something far removed as much as they care about something on a personal level? We can take advantage of another even stronger desire. The desire to be recognized. Say what you will about those big gestures with names attached but you cannot deny that it moves a lot of money to a lot of places that normally wouldn’t have that. So we appeal to our vanity and need to be recognized by others. It isn’t the greatest evil in the world and it is a system that works. But make no mistake, this is not generosity for generosity’s sake.
It is sometimes difficult to weed out the truly generous from the seemingly generous. In regards to relationships this is especially important because we certainly do not want to be caught off guard with the person we are with. True, altruistic generosity has certain defining characteristics that one should always look for in a potential partner if genuine generosity is something you are looking for.
- They believe that what is theirs is also yours.
Those who possess a true sense of generosity also tend to not have a high sense of possession. They should not be possessive of material things and should be willing to always give of what they have.
- They regularly demonstrate a belief in altruism.
There is a saying, ‘it takes 21 days to develop a habit and 90 days to develop a lifestyle. True generosity does not begin overnight. It is a reflection of a long and conscious effort. Those who are truly generous live lives that show it. They volunteer their time, they donate their goods to the needy, they contribute money to charities. A truly generous person gives not only to those he knows but to strangers as well.
- They give for the act, not for the reward.
One of the biggest red flags of ‘pseudo-generosity’ is the person’s focus on the reward of generosity and not on the act itself. If the conversation leans more towards ‘check out all the cool stuff they give if you just donate’, perhaps this is not the most genuinely generous person. They may disguise their actual wants and needs as generosity. For example, they might give you a big screen TV for your birthday when you know they’ve really been wanting one all this time. Or they might leverage their gift for something they want. ‘Well you know I gave you this really nice gift that cost x and so for my birthday I think it’s only fair I get y.’
- They give even when there is the possibility of anonymity.
Perhaps the biggest characteristic of the truly generous is their ability to give even when there is a chance that they will never be recognized for their contribution. They put money in the tip jar even when the cashier isn’t looking. They enjoy, rather than avoid, thankless donations. This is a true love of altruism, when the simple act of giving is all the pleasure they need.
We might not always be the most generous in all aspects. But we are certainly capable of generosity. Be generous in life, love, and laughter.
Man: 61 Loneliness: 19