Books in Brief

The Paradox of Generosity

The Paradox of Generosity
By Christian Smith and
Hilary Davidson

Another day, another pile of evidence on the personal benefits of giving to charity. In The Paradox of Generosity, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and graduate student Hilary Davidson present the remarkably detailed answers of generous and miserly people who they interviewed on questions of life satisfaction, physical health, and mental adjustment. Their data show that givers are kinder to their neighbors, find themselves in better health, report having a strong life purpose, and generally describe themselves as “very happy.”

Does this mean that generosity stokes satisfaction in life? Or is it practiced by those who are already well-adjusted? Using game theory to analyze how causes and effects interact with one another, the authors find that well-being and generosity echo back and forth and reinforce each other.

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To get a grip on that human complexity, the authors conduct 40 detailed interviews with generous and ungenerous households. We meet one family who don’t have time or interest in charity as they pursue financial triumph, a weekend home by the beach, and a deck for evening wine hour. Finding themselves isolated from relatives, friends, and their local community, they are not wholly satisfied with life, but doubt there is anything they can do about it.

For families like this, the authors surmise happiness is something “beyond the horizon’s line-sight—not something to realize in the present. The compass points that guide thinking are material success, financial security, personal opportunities.” But the researchers conclude from qualitative research that “none of these will guide them to true satisfaction and fulfillment in life, just a hunger for more.”

The generous lives described in their book are not always happy in a traditional sense either. One woman experiences persistent headaches and fatigue while grieving the death of her father and recovering from a heart attack. However, she says she is at peace and chooses to focus on the positive parts of life, such as close relationships with family. “For the last three years it’s been lots of physical things for me,” she says. But despite her circumstances, she tells the authors, “I’m pretty content.” Her comments, without skipping the pain, disclose a spirit full of faith, hope, and love.

All in all, Smith and Davidson provide robust evidence for the truism that “giving we receive, grasping we lose.” They find that gifts, not possessions, correlate with the strength and contentment that make life worth living. 

Ashley May is managing editor of  Philanthropy.