After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous. People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy. Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”
This is hardly news. It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained. Yet, insight into how this works is useful.
In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’ The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person. Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.
The bottom line is both simple and encouraging: Prof. Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.”
The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving. The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.
Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :
“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving. It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it. Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom. It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others. It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s. That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”
To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness. This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences. To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.
Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),
“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”
“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.” We could also call it confidence. It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.
The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals. We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude. And we can’t, not all at once. We begin with small steps. As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.
If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…
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* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.