Study: Generosity makes you happier.

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…

– Shantideva

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* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

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Dana: The Paramita of Generosity

After giving this matter a great deal of thought over many months, I have decided to include a donation button on the blog. I’m sure most people would not agonize over such a decision, but they’re not me.

Honestly, operating a blog or website is not hugely expensive, especially once you are up and running. Up to now, I have been able to cover the costs with my web design and hosting service, even though I’ve never been able to compete with large design firms or the big hosting companies. Web design has changed so much that it’s very hard for independents to make money these days, and this year, I’ve lost a few hosting customers so the puny amount I use make from that service is now even punier.

Now, I don’t want to hand anyone a sob story here, but there are some other factors involved. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was in-between jobs and without health insurance. In order to receive treatment for my cancer, I needed MediCare but I was not eligible for MediCare because I was too young. First time I have been too young for anything in many a moon. The only way I could get MediCare was through Social Security, and I’ve learned that means living a rather spartan existence. That doesn’t bother me too much. Even when I made lots of money, I didn’t have a lavish lifestyle. But the amount I receive is so small it doesn’t even cover my monthly bills, and they place limits on how much additional income you can have.

I could clutter this blog up with advertising, but frankly, I would rather cut my throat. I hate advertising on web sites in general, and especially on blogs. They’re ugly, annoying, and some sites have so many it takes forever to download the page. Pop-up ads are the worst.

I am a legally ordained Buddhist minister/priest, so there is no problem with accepting donations, although at the present time I am not able to offer anyone a tax write-off. And while dana or donations has long been a Buddhist tradition, I’m not going to lay a trip on anyone about how a donation will insure you benefits or merit or change your karma. It’s a nice thing to do and nice things when done usually come back to you in positive ways, or at the very least, gives you the satisfaction knowing you’ve helped someone.

But I don’t want to slight the importance of dana or offerings (pujana) either. As one of the six paramitas, it is seen as a way to cultivate generosity. Generosity is an integral component to a well-balance life, and there are many ways to be generous. As Buddhists, the most important offering we can make is of ourselves, to win over ourselves, to transform ourselves. From the Mahayana point of view this begins with generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. That’s why in the Bodhiicaryavatara, Shantideva makes many material offerings, and then ultimately, makes an offering of himself, for himself, and of course, for others:

To acquire the gem of this thought . . . For an offering I will avail myself of all the flowers, fruits, and medicinal plants, all the treasures in the universe . . . I also offer myself . . . I will devote myself without hesitation to bringing good to living beings. And I will free myself from the faults of self-cherishing, and attachment . . . “

The button is there, at the top, on the right. I don’t think I will publish the names of donors, mostly to protect the privacy of readers. But if anyone wants to be acknowledged publically, I’d be happy to do that, just let me know.

So, if you can help with a small donation, it would be appreciated.

I have to say that I am amazed that anyone reads this thing, and that regular readership has been growing over the past few months is even more amazing. My intention has never been to promote myself, but rather to simply share my understanding of Buddha-dharma in hopes that someone else might find it useful, and I thank you all for coming here.

Finally, while we make offerings for our own sake, and for others, the Buddhist spirit of generosity is to give without such thoughts, as described in this passage from the Gaganaganja Sutra:

skyskyHe gives that gift, pure of the notion of I or mine, pure of the notion of motive, of rationale, of expecting profit, a gift pure in thought like the sky . . .  as the sky is infinite, so is the thought with which he gives; as the sky is outspread over all, so that gift is applied unto wisdom; as the sky is immaterial, so that gift is dependent upon no matter; as the sky is without discrimination so that gift is detached from all discrimination; so it is without consciousness, not composite, with the characteristic of manifesting nothing; as the sky pervades all the Buddha’s field, so that gift is pervaded with compassion for all creatures  . . .”

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