The Selfish World
What would you think about a generosity challenge? In other words, what would the world look like if we were all a bit more generous? If you’re like me, the majority of your day and even your life is spent on you. On thinking about yourself and what you have to do and what you’re going to do. On what other people did to you or didn’t do for you. On what things are going to look like for you next week or next year or ten years from now.
For the most part in life, we are concerned with ourselves. In fact, the one thing that we usually like about ourselves is ourselves. We like us because, frankly, we’re us. Of course, we have times when we don’t like the things we do and there are some people who, for a variety of reasons, don’t like themselves, but the universal attitude of self-love forms the basis for what has been considered one of the greatest commandments of all time when it comes to virtue – love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The virtue of this commandment finds itself in the fact that it represents an anti-selfishness and yet it qualifies how we should be unselfish. In order for this comparison – to love someone as we love ourselves – to make sense, there must be some aspect of loving ourselves that, when applied others, has virtue.
The virtuousness of this commandment rests in the way we should love someone else – to love them as we love us. And if we think about the way that we love us, we usually love us just for being us. There’s not really any special characteristic about me that qualifies my own love for myself other than the fact that I’m just me. That’s it.
Though this command comes to us through a religious tradition, its roots go far beyond the Judeo/Christian ethic. In fact, we can find echoes of this principle in a variety of moral traditions. Take these examples (these are taken out of the appendix from C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man):
- Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you – Analects of Confucius
- By the fundamental law of nature, man is to be preserved as much as possible – Locke, Treatises of Civil Govt.
- Speak kindness… show goodwill – Babylonian Hymn
- Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good – Cicero
- Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded – Hindu proverb
- Be blameless to thy kindred. Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong – Old Norse
- Children, the old, the poor, etc., should be considered as lords of the atmosphere – Hindu
The resonance of this virtue in multiple cultures seems to give credence to a universal ideal – that we shouldn’t be so concerned with ourselves that we forget about those around us – both near and far.
The Generosity Challenge
In light of this, consider what life might look like if we were more generous toward others and less concerned with ourselves. The generosity challenge simply means being intentional each day to be generous towards others. It’s not natural. It’s not typically habitual. But it can change your life. In order for authentic generosity to exist, it means a few things.
- This isn’t about reciprocity. In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini lists six universal principles of persuasion for getting someone to do what we want. One of them is the principle of reciprocity. According to this, when we give something to someone else, there is a psychological trigger that almost pressures or persuades that person to want to do something for us in return. Why is this? Maybe deep down we don’t want to be in debt to someone else and we feel an overwhelming need to “make it right” when someone does something for us. Maybe we feel a need to balance out the scales in our relationships with others. Whatever it is, the generosity challenge has nothing to do with using reciprocity to get something from someone else. The generosity challenge means giving without an expectation of getting. We simply do something for someone else just for the sake of the other person.
- This isn’t about being a doormat. On the other hand, some people will try and utilize our generosity and manipulate us to give them more of what they want. A generosity challenge isn’t about doing everything someone asks us to do every time they ask. It isn’t about allowing others to dictate what we do and don’t do for them. It isn’t about subordinating ourselves under other people for the rest of our lives. However, it is about possibly serving someone else on our own terms – even someone you don’t like – to express generosity.
- This isn’t about currying favor. Sometimes we act generously in certain circumstances to get people to think better about us. We want to be liked so we give something. This may be considered reciprocity but in a sense, it’s different because what we ask for in return is a better reputation with the person, rather than a specific act or thing. The generosity challenge is simply about giving without any expectations.
The Problem with Social Exchange Theory
Social Exchange Theory proposes that our social relationships are based on a cost/benefit mentality. In other words, when we look at our relationships with other people, we do things and don’t do things for them based on what we can get back from them. If we can see some type of gain from doing something for someone – reciprocity, a favor, a better reputation with that person – then we do or give to them. If we can’t see a decent return, we refrain from acting.
Social exchange theory comes out of an economic mindset. When we think capitalistically, we think in terms of expense and return, cost and benefit. Applying this type of thinking to our social relationships moves those relationships to a hierarchical level and destroys the mystery of human relationship. Social exchange theory prevents authentic generosity in that we only do something when we can get a better return. We only invest when we think it will pay off for us in the end. When we act in accordance with this type of thinking, I believe it hurts our virtue and prevents the deep and intimate relationships that we can have and that we need.
The Benefits of Generosity
Why should we take a generosity challenge? Here’s a couple of the benefits of being generous.
- It makes the world better. When we are generous and not selfish, I believe it makes the world a better place. Selfishness, in my opinion, is at the root of most, if not all, of the world’s ills. Theft, murder, corporate greed, slavery, war, hunger. Name one and try to find a way to explain it outside of selfishness. I’m not saying that people don’t commit treacherous crimes for altruistic reasons but I am saying that a lot of evil could be eliminated if we weren’t so selfish. When I am generous, even in some small way, I think it makes the world a better place to live. And the more people who do so as well, the better the world can be.
- It makes you a better person. If you’re like me, you hate selfish people. Maybe not hate, but most likely at least disfavor them. In fact, when I see myself as being selfish, I don’t really like myself much. Although I believe I’m bound to selfishness by my human nature, I do think that I have within myself the ability to take my selfish nature and make it my servant rather than my leader. Every time I am generous, I’m winning some small battle against this self-centered, narcissistic aspect of my own being. I also find that when I’m generous, I’m happier. Studies have linked our happiness to our generosity and for whatever reason, it makes us feel good to be generous.
- It benefits other people. When you give to someone else, it makes them feel better, it makes them happier, and it makes their life better. Especially when they aren’t expecting it. The joy of surprise on a person’s face when someone gives them something they don’t expect is priceless. So in being generous, we are bringing joy and happiness, not only to ourselves but to others as well.
The Generosity Challenge
Here’s what I’m proposing – a generosity challenge. Take 10 minutes a day and do something for someone else. Make it an intentional act and one in which you expect absolutely nothing in return. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Put a quarter in someone’s parking meter
- Handwrite a thank-you note to someone
- Give an online review for a podcast, blog post, book, or product
- Text or email someone an encouraging and uplifting message
- Let someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store
- Pay for someone’s coffee, dinner, etc.
- Give someone a compliment
These are just a few examples but there are literally hundreds more. If you’re looking for some ideas, check out this post on 103 random acts of kindness.
Call to Action
10 minutes or a time period of generosity may not work well when it comes to what we do. In that case, do 3 intentionally generous acts a day. A generosity challenge isn’t just about accomplishing your time period or crossing your acts of generosity off a list but rather establishing a habit of being more generous. We don’t always feel like being generous but as CS Lewis said, when we act in a virtuous way, the feeling for the virtue usually follows along behind. Find specific, intentional ways to be more generous to others and see if it doesn’t change your own life for the better.
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