President's Column

Generosity: The Positive Psychology of Giving

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

My heart sings and my spirit soars whenever I bask in the warm sunshine, listen to the symphony of the ocean, or embrace the starry sky. So much beauty and grace is so generously bestowed on every living soul and me!

But then my heart aches and my spirit sinks whenever I think of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor or the always-sated but ever-empty folks I have known. So much wealth squandered foolishly on themselves!

This brief article represents my humble attempt to explore the blessings of generosity. My effort would be worth it, even if it opens the eyes of one single person to the enduring, fulfilling abundance that comes from giving.

In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success Deepak Chopra has this to say about the Law of Giving: “The universe operates through dynamic exchange – giving and receiving are different aspects of the flow of energy in the universe. And in our willingness to give that which we seek, we keep the abundance of the universe circulating in our lives.”

Conversely, when we are unwilling to give, we hinder the flow of energy and deprive others and ourselves of the abundance and fulfillment, which we desperately seek.

King Solomon once said: “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11: 25)

But the positive psychology of giving goes beyond the logic of rational egotism or the wisdom of creating affluence. It goes to the very heart of defining a civil society, which rests on four pillars: generosity, justice, compassion and integrity. No civilization can long survive without these civic virtues.

The Positive Psychology of Giving

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is indeed a universal spiritual law, but the psychology of giving is more complex, because both the motives and the consequences of giving can be complicated.

The Columbia drug lords, targets of American’s war on drugs, are hailed by the poor peasants in Columbia as benefactors or even saviours, because these drug lords build schools, hospitals and create jobs for the poor. Are the drug cartels blessed? Can it ever be justified to manufacture and distribute illegal drugs, simply because some of the drug profits are used to help the poor?

There is no doubt that the United States of America is the most generous country in terms of dollar amount for foreign aids, yet many countries resent America. Why is this? Why is the United States often cursed rather than blessed by the very people who receive American aids? Is it because America’s charity giving overseas is linked to its own political and economic agenda? Or is it because other countries are simply envious of America’s wealth and its status as the only superpower?

Some corporations make their fortunes based on sweatshops and other human rights violations. Then they give a small fraction of their profits to charities to generate good publicity and create business opportunities. Are they blessed in spite of their unethical practices?

However, regardless of one’s motives and its consequences on others, at the individual level, giving is generally associated with psychological well-being and health benefits, as documented by a recent article Do Good and Be Well.

To get to the heart of the matter, the psychology of giving centers on two basic questions: How can we live better through better giving? How can we create positive communities through generosity?

Ladder of Generosity

Perhaps, one way to answer these questions is to think about generosity in terms of various levels of giving — the higher the level, the better the giving.

Rambam’s Ladder provides a rationale why we can become better people through better giving better. Rambam was a 12th century Jewish scholar. He developed an eight-step program on giving to the poor on the basis of Jewish law

Julie Salamon, a best selling author of the New York Times, provides a contemporary exploration of Ramban’s Ladder. The lowest level represents giving begrudgingly -such as giving money to a panhandler. The highest rung represents the gift of self-reliance – such as offering the panhandler a job so that he does not need to beg any more.

I am proposing a different ladder of generosity, primarily based on the motives and attitudes of giving. The spiritual law of giving may be tested by the following 8-steps in ascending order: the higher the level, the greater the blessing to both the givers and the receivers.

  1. Give begrudgingly to escape from an unpleasant situation
  2. Give reluctantly to escape from the burden of guilt or obligation
  3. Give intentionally in order to gain recognition, tax relief or material returns
  4. Give willingly in response to other people’s request for help
  5. Give generously, without being asked, to meet other people’s needs
  6. Give sacrificially, without being asked, to meet other people’s needs
  7. Give sacrificially and consistently for a larger cause and for the benefits of humanity
  8. Give oneself and one’s life sacrificially for a larger cause and for the benefits of humanity

The highest level is of particular importance, because generosity is no longer limited to money or possessions. At this level, a generous person is magnanimous in sharing his power, credit, time and life with others. When necessary, she would even give her life for others, unconditionally.

Which level applies to you? Are you striving to move up the generosity-ladder or the corporate ladder?

Profiles of Generosity

Another way to shed some light on this topic is to look at some examples of generosity.

Who are most generous? I am not thinking about John Rockefeller or Bill Gates. They are indeed great philanthropists, whose generous donations have brought happiness and health to countless individuals. Yet, they are not the most generous.

Have your heard about the widow’s mites as recorded in the New Testament of the Bible? A mite is the smallest copper coin – equivalent to a penny. Commenting on the widow’s offering, Jesus said to his disciples:

“I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 43-44)

Evangelist John Wesley (1703-1791) was another model of generous giving. He was fully aware of the economic uncertainty and difficulties of his time, yet he was not concerned about his own financial security. When he became very well known from his preaching, his income reached £1,400 per year. Yet, he chose to live on just £30, while giving the rest away. He once wrote, “If I leave behind me ten pounds … you and all mankind [can] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.”

What made them so generous? How can we develop the same spirit of generosity?

Cultivation of Generosity

It is important to bear in mind that charitable giving is seldom an isolated act; it tends to be part of a cluster personality traits than include selflessness, magnanimity and kindness. The development of generosity can often be traced to early childhood experiences, from a selfless nurturing mother and from sharing toys with siblings.

Charitable giving can be an important part in character education, at home and school. Children need to be given the encouragement and opportunities to give towards a variety of charities – both locally and internationally. More importantly, we need to model for them the spirit of generosity. It is through charitable giving that children experience the joy of sharing and serving something larger than themselves.

We need to continue the practice of charitable giving. Every simple act of giving strengthens the charitable habit, which in turn contributes to the development of a character of kindness and generosity.

Bu there are always excuses that prohibit giving! Some common excuses may be legitimate, such as “I am just a poor college student” and “I am already deep in debt”. But the underlying cause is the “gimme-gimme” attitude.

The biggest obstacle to generosity is our own selfish disposition. Unless we confront this fundamental predicament and overcome it, we can never move up too far on the ladder of generosity.

I have known several positive psychologists and preachers who exalt the virtue of generosity, but get stuck on Step 3. What is holding them back? Their ego!

According to Buddhism, one can solve the ego problem through the enlightenment of “no self”. Ma Medhanadi has given the following piece of wisdom:

“You have to begin where you are, allowing yourself to feel the difficulty of your own predicament. Making peace with how you are is in itself an act of generosity and honesty. It is a pure gift. You are the giver and the receiver of the gift. But it is not meant for you alone. When eventually you receive the wisdom of no self, it becomes a gift for everyone around you…. Real happiness can only come when you are ready to give up that struggle for conditions to be the way you want them to be and you are willing to stand in the very middle of the flames without being afraid. You trust that in facing your fear, your longing, your selfishness, you can finally find the way to end fear, longing and selfishness.”

The Buddhist teaching on “no self” has led many to a life of serenity, contentment and generosity.

In contrast, Christianity teaches the way of the cruel cross – the pathway of self-denial and love for God and others. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples how to live in the kingdom of God:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will also be.” (Luke 12:33-34)

Not all Christians have heeded his call to personal poverty and love for the poor. But those who do have proven his words true.

Bernard of Clairvaux followed the steps of Jesus and discovered this profound wisdom: “Poverty was not found in heaven. It abounded on earth, but man did not know its value. The Son of God, therefore, treasured it and came down from heaven to choose it for Himself, to make it precious to us.”

Francis of Assisi found abundance from his vow of personal poverty. He once said, “The more we despise poverty the more will the world despise us and the greater need will we suffer. But if we embrace Holy Poverty very closely, the world will come to us and will feed us abundantly.”

These saints are still remembered with fondness, because their words and deeds of generosity have helped restore the image of God in our souls, and have shown us how to receive abundance blessings.

Is Jesus’ teaching is too heavenly minded to be of any earthy good? Is his condition for discipleship too demanding? Is the “treasure in heaven” beyond our reach? One needs to take him by his word and try it by faith.


The topic of generosity is at once threatening and liberating. It poses a mortal threat to our ego, because selfishness and generosity can never co-exist. Yet, at the same time, it promises true liberty, because we are truly free to be generous when we are ready to embrace poverty and death.

Paradoxically, it is only through self-denial that we discover our true selves; through poverty that we find abundance; and through dying to the self and the world that we become fully alive. We can be a generous source of blessings to others, only when we are fearlessly heaven-bound.

We may not be able to fully grasp the wisdom of these paradoxes, but we can move up the ladder of generosity – one step at a time, until we can touch heaven.