How to be generous

A while ago I was in Adelaide, in my childhood home. I had one of those moments of revelation about how much I owed my mother, and I wanted to do something to show her my appreciation, gratitude and love. Suspecting that her love language is “acts of service”, I decided to clean the stove. Man did I clean that stove good – scrubbing away specks of tomato sauce, spraying it with scented cleaning fluids, cleaning right up underneath the knobs. Soon, it sparkled like the on-board pool of a bourgeois cruise ship. Happy to have so successfully performed my filial love and devotion, I retreated to my book and the lounge room.

Mum didn’t even notice. She got home, shopping bags in hand, probably simultaneously instructing someone to travel to somewhere to pick up someone else, she quickly banged on a saucepan and set about readying dinner. The lesson I took away is that subtle generosity doesn’t work.

Another incident, 2013: I had made it to the grand final of a karaoke competition, then failed to even make the top three, my Ziggy Stardust being defeated by a heart-felt rendition of Unchained Melody. The next day on my desk at work I found an envelope. It declared “Don’t let the fly break your balls” and contained $50. A generous thing! It certainly made me feel good. But who was it from? To whom did I owe gratitude?

a generous envelope with $50 for me

Recently I’ve spent some time thinking about generosity: what it means to be generous, what purpose generosity serves. I’m not too interested in the philosophical questions that might come up, but more so the practicalities – in what ways does generosity help to develop relationships, and how is it best used for that? I’ve come to the opinion that generosity serves a purpose for each of the giver and the receiver, and perhaps for the relationship itself. For this purpose to be achieved, however, generosity must be carried out in a certain way.

The effect of generosity on the receiver is crucial: the purpose of a generous gift (material or otherwise) is to make the recipient feel good because somebody felt towards them positively enough to give them a generous gift. The gift is the medium, not the message. The message is most simply put as “I love you”, but might include notes of appreciation or gratitude, too. The positive feeling from a gift is only peripherally due to the gift itself: the $50 gift meant much more to me than it would to find an identical amount on the footpath. Indeed, the intention of the giver is central to how positive the gift will make the receiver feel. If I’d cleaned the stove because mum had asked me too, it would mean less. If I later found out that my karaoke envelope was intended for someone else, the gift would be hollow (although the $50 would still be good for a fresh copy of Dominion.) So a generous act serves to make the recipient feel good about themselves, because of their knowledge about the intention of the act.

What does generosity achieve for the giver? Well, most people feel good when people they want to feel good feel good. Generous acts enable the giver to make the receiver feel good, and this makes the giver feel good. Potentially, this represents excellent return on investment: you may in fact get more joy from sharing chocolate with me than you would from eating it yourself (I encourage you to try and see). In addition, generosity helps the giver to develop and sustain a positive self-image of them as a generous person: they feel good about themselves because they get to experience themselves as somebody who deliberately does things to make other people feel good. Surely this is a person we all want to be? Yes. It is.

three people holding generous gifts with a sign saying thank you

When Mamma Dignam comes through, I make sure she is aware that I’m aware of her generosity.

Thirdly, ongoing exchange develops relationships. Good relationships are interdependent: they allow us to meet our own interests by drawing upon the resources of others. If I can do something for you such that you benefit, and I benefit from seeing you benefit, I’ve a motivation to do this. Too, as everyone ever who has even cursorily thought about the evolution of altruism or “enlightened self-interest” knows, a generous act can help to establish a pattern of mutual assistance and collaboration. I might drive you to the airport before your trip to Brisbane, because I care about you, but also knowing that I may require a similar good turn in the future.

So, generosity makes the receiver feel good about being chosen as the subject of generosity, makes the giver feel good about being a good person who makes the receiver feel good, and helps to develop the relationship between giver and receiver. But what is needed for this to work?

Awareness is necessary for the receiver to feel good and thus the giver: the target must be aware they were chosen as the subject of a generous act. In the first anecdote above, my mum didn’t realise she’d been chosen (perhaps my cleaning just wasn’t good enough? I felt like it made a big difference…). Thus, she didn’t feel good about being chosen, and I didn’t get to feel good about her feeling good. Nuts!

Intention is also needed for the giver to feel good about their act: the giver needs to know they chose to be generous in order to cultivate their self-image as a generous person.

I think that’s about it: for generosity to achieve its purpose, the giver must intend the act, and the receiver must be aware of the act.


I decided to write this post after a curious experience to do with generosity. I had booked tickets for a friend and me to see a movie, expecting that she’d pay me back, and, well, it just never happened. I was unsure about what to do – I didn’t want to be that guy, but I also felt that it was almost deceitful to go along with it, as it hadn’t been my wish to pay for my friend’s ticket. I didn’t feel generous: I felt socially trapped. In hindsight, I wasn’t getting the inward benefit of having intended my seeming generosity, and my friend’s lack of over gratitude made me wonder if she was even aware. In the end I just went and asked her for the money back, not because I didn’t want to be generous, but because I did want to be, and for me, that required a choice to be generous.

I am keen to get better at being generous. Partly this is about overcoming my own stinginess and trying to be better at remembering how much I enjoy being generous. But it’s also about better understanding what makes generosity work. By better understanding the importance of intention and awareness to generous acts, I hope to generally generate generosity more genuinely.

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2 Responses to “How to be generous”

  1. I think you’re right to identify reciprocity and mutualism as key parts of gift giving. I remember reading somewhere that pre-capitalist economies are often described as barter-based, but they’re actually gift-based. Every exchange that we avoid making transactional is a little breather from late capitalism.

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