Unlocking Mindfulness through Generosity

You’ve definitely experienced this before.  On the train, traveling alone, there is a natural order of things.  You get on the train, you find the first empty two-seater, and you are presented with a choice.  Do I stake my claim on the two seats or do I move in to take a window?  In my experience, many – not everyone – will take the aisle seat or put their bag there, maximizing their own space while blocking off anyone else from sitting there.

On my trip to Philly on Friday, I was again astounded by how committed single passengers were to staking their claim on two seaters.  An Asian man with his four year old walked by – up the seats, down the seats – he needed a two seater to sit with his child, but no one appeared to be moving.  To everyone else, it was not their problem.  Many tried to avoid the situation, popping in headphones, closing their eyes to fall asleep, etc.  It was the classic diffusion of responsibility.

In Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, a similar example is used to describe how the world looks from “in the box” versus “outside the box”.  In short, when people are “in the box” towards others, we cannot see beyond our own needs.  Further, we project our negative feelings towards ourselves on those that made us feel this way.   For instance, if I noticed the man and boy, but chose not to act because I was working on my computer and didn’t want to be hassled, I might blame the girl who is only reading a book.  Perhaps she is lazy, or inattentive, or rude.  I might blame the Asian man himself for being the last one on the train – I mean traveling with a kid clearly requires more of a time cushion, right?  This is what the Arbinger Institute coined self-deception and we all suffer from it at one point or another.

Thankfully, there is a way out.  Putting my own spin on the Arbinger Institute’s explanation, I believe that being mindful is the way out.  And, according to ancient wisdom – from Judea-Christian beliefs to Buddhism, the best place to start is with generosity.  By recognizing the needs of others, one can use one’s resources – time, effort, attention, money, etc. – help another person.  Often the “cost” is small – moving seats to clear space for the man and his son.  But the psychological benefit is immensely rewarding.

Generosity until itself is rewarding, and while classical economics and game theory models may fail to account for this, more recent studies have suggested there are deep biological and evolutionary reasons for this. To summarize, as social creatures, a key pillar of our survival as a species is directly related to our ability to co-operate.  This isn’t groundbreaking news.  We don’t have claws, gnarly teeth, or particularly good camouflage. If we were dropped into the African savannah all alone, I don’t think many besides Bear Grylls would last long at all. It should come as no surprise then that when you are generous, you feel good about it.

In fact, a recent HBS working paper found a relationship between pro-social spending and happiness, with a consistent relationship across 136 countries.   These results suggest generosity as a universal value, independent of cultural context. What’s more is that giving even a small amount promotes happiness. As it turns out, beyond a certain level of income, as much as $75K per year, there is no additional “happiness” associated with income.  That is, aside from the fact that you may now be able to be more generous in your monetary contributions.

There is still much to learn about the neurological, psychological, and evolutionary bases for generosity.  For a second though, think about your own experience or craft an experiment like Sasha Dichter, the Chief Innovation Officer at the Acumen Fund did.  It doesn’t have to be grand; I’ve found that even a simple smile after holding the door for someone whose hands are full provides me with the momentary “warm glow” of generosity. I’m sure you have countless examples in your own lives too.

Stepping out of the box through generosity changes the way you may now see others who are around you.  In the moments after you give, you have addressed another’s needs and by virtue of the act, you have stepped out of your own way. You gain a moment of awareness, one that can last through practicing generosity regularly.  With this awareness, you can now see the world more clearly and achieve your goals more deliberately.  More on this next post.

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2 thoughts on “Unlocking Mindfulness through Generosity

  1. Reminds me of Forest Gump and Jenny on the bus. Nobody told him he “could sit there if you want”. True generosity or “mitzvahs” are done without any thought of secondary gain (anonymously is the highest form of charity), however as you point out, the good feeling is a form of secondary gain. Why are humans programed this way? Doesn’t self-preservation suggest we’d be better off taking care of ourselves and offspring only as opposed to worrying about strangers? And by the way $75,000 a year for a family of four doesn’t go very far when you are trying to pay for college.

  2. Certainly one of the most touching moments of a fantastic movie 🙂 I wonder to the extent that the Jewish ordering of generosity (known as Maimon’s or Rambam’s Ladder) is tied to the feeling of pure altruistic generosity — often described as the “warm glow”. For instance, giving entirely anonymously allows one to experience the feeling of generosity unclouded by what we may rationalize as our motivation – e.g. some sort of social compensation or return. Though I should clarify that giving anonymously is not the highest level of giving according to the wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maimonides#Charity_.28Tzedakah.29), rather it is helping someone gain self-sufficiency. With that in mind, you’re doing that three times over, and I am very grateful to be a recipient of your generosity.

    To address your comment re: 75K a year. The NY Times article doesn’t really explain that number, but here is a link to the research paper (http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/aknin%20norton%20dunn%202009.pdf). To answer your question directly, you are right; 75K per year doesn’t go very far in light of college expenses. However, the overarching point is that the amount of money one thinks they need to be happy isn’t as much as you would expect. The researchers “suggest that laypeople engage in behaviors designed to increase or maintain their wealth because they overestimate the impact that income has on well-being.”

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