The Science of Generosity

Here is the text of my Christmas Day talk 2017.

The pleasure of giving…

presentsToday I  want to ask a fairly simple sounding question. What’s so great about Christmas?  Presents? Food? Family? Holidays. There are so many reasons. Here’s one really profound reason why Christmas is so good. Because on Christmas Day, not only do you get to receive gifts from other people, but you get to give presents to other people. Jesus said, “it is better to give than to receive”, and here is something really strange. Science tells us that it actually feels really good to give presents to other people. There is great pleasure in giving. Weird. Why is it that losing money out of my bank account, spending time trying to find presents in frantic shopping malls, giving something which cost my money to somebody else, actually makes me feel good?

Yet it’s true. My daughter has shown such an obsession with giving- she’s been going round the house grabbing all kinds of random objects, wrapping them up, allocating them to all kinds of people and putting them under the tree. Why? Because giving presents is so much fun. Why does generosity make us feel good?

In 2008, a professor by the name of Michael Norton, asked 632 Americans about how much money they earned and how they spent it, and then asked them to rate their happiness. Regardless of their income, people who spent money on others reported greater levels of happiness than people who only spend their money on themselves. Norton says, “Instead of buying yourself a coffee, buy your friend a coffee and that might actually make you a happier person.”

In 2014, another study was done- 2000 people were studied over 5 years, they measured the levels of peoples generosity- how much time people spent volunteering, and how much money they gave away. People who described themselves as very happy volunteered an average of 5.8 hours per month, while those who considered themselves “unhappy” volunteered just 0.6 hours. People who gave more than 10% of their income away were far less depressed. People who were hospitable in their relationships were more likely to be in excellent health. The happiest people were almost always the most generous people.

The Survival Value Theory

So- a question this morning: why is it that generosity makes you feel good? Well, let me share 2 theories. Theory number 1: The Survival Value Theory. Many many ages ago our brains evolved a pleasure in generosity because it had better survival value. You hear scientists and psychologists using this theory all the time to explain everything. The reason we are the way we are is because many ages ago, there was some kind of survival advantage for our brains to have some feature, so that feature became more common. So- in terms of generosity, one day many ages ago, a monkey up a tree had some funny thing happen in his brain which made him  generous, and that helped him, and so all his children started being generous, and generosity prevailed.

Now, I don’t know what your thoughts are on how our world came about, whether God created the world, or did it come about via evolution. Christmas Day is really not the day to give a lecture on that topic. But all I want to say this morning is that this particular theory which people use all the time has got some serious problems in it.

A fact free theory

The first problem is that it is a fact free theory- it is just a story people tell, but it’s not actually based on any facts, it’s just based on imagination. No one saw any monkey become generous, and pass his generous genes on. There is no way to test the theory. I could quite easily make up an alternative story, and say- the reason why so many people get depressed is because there was survival value in getting depressed. The reason why I’ve got warts on my toes? Many ages ago, a monkey got warts on his toes, and all the other monkeys thought warts on toes were really cool, or maybe they felt sorry for him and treated him nicely, and so he and his genes survived. You can explain anything very easily just by making up a story of why there might have been survival value in something- but unfortunately, you’re just making up stories of why something might have happened. You’re not dealing with facts, you’re just dealing with fairy tales. If you’ve got a good imagination, you can make up a reason for why anything should have survival value.

A generosity that is really all about you

There’s another problem though, which brings us back to Christmas Day. The second problem with the Survival Value theory is that it actually leads us to a horrible conclusion. The ultimate reason why you should be generous- according to the Survival Value theory- is because it is better for you. It’s better for your survival, your prosperity, your happiness.You get more out of it for yourself. This unfortunately makes generosity actually all about you, and what you can get out of it. So, you’ve just gutted the heart out of generosity.

According to this theory, there is nothing really good in itself about being generous, it’s just a handy strategy for making yourself feel good. You’ve made yourself the centre of the world in the act of being generous. There is something incredibly bleak and disconcerting to think that only reason I really enjoy giving presents, is because my brain is playing tricks on me, because if I give gifts to other people this year, I’m more likely to get bigger and better presents from people next year, that’s really what I’m after.

The God Theory

There is another theory about why generosity makes you feel happy. It’s the God theory. The reason why generosity makes us feel happy is because it really is good to be generous, whether it makes you feel nice or not. The reason why it does often feel good to be generous is because we were designed to be generous, we are fulfilling our purpose. We were made to reflect God’s character- and at the heart of the universe, the reason why our universe exists in the first place- is because behind the scenes of this physical world, there exists an eternal God- and this God is a God of great generosity, of infinite love, of incredible joy.

So, when we act in a way which reflects God’s character- you are doing what you were meant to do. A dolphin was meant to swim in the ocean- it’s just what it is designed to do. A bird was meant to fly in the sky , a dog was meant to take delight in gulping down his doggy biscuits, a cat was meant to sit on the garden fence and imagine it is the ruler of the universe. You and I, we were designed to live in love, in joy, in generosity. God made us to reflect his own character. That’s what we were meant to do. When we do what we were designed do, it feels great. We experience the heart of the infinitely joyful God.

And so today, let’s enjoy the generosity of others given to us, let’s enjoy our generosity which we express to others, and let’s reflect on the great infinite generosity of God who we get our generosity from, and which we have been tremendously blessed by.

But why is life so tough if God is so generous?

Someone might be here this morning, and you might say- well, hang on? Why is my life so tough? I’ve had some tough experiences this year. How has God been generous to me? I’d just remind you this. This world we live in is a spiritual battlefield. There is a spiritual war. We are separated from God, and we suffer as a result in all kinds of ways. This world is not heaven. It’s a spiritual warzone. That’s why things don’t always go right.  The signs of God’s generosity to us are everywhere we look- should we be open to look. Our enjoyment of good food, precious gift of our family and children, amazing bodies which are designed to enjoy so much in life. But there is a place far more profound where we see the generosity of God. Allow me to read a verse from the Bible for you.

2 Corinthians 8:9  “ For you know the grace [generosity] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

The incredible generosity of God

The Generosity of GodThe greatest act of the generosity of God is seen in Jesus. God entered the warzone of this world as one of us- Jesus. Jesus the one who was infinitely rich- creator of the universe, owner of everything- became absoloutely dirt poor- he becomes a tiny human baby in a dirty middle eastern village 2000 years ago. He grew up, was agonizingly executed on a cross, a death reserved for slaves and criminals. He became poor- he went pretty much as low as it was possible to go for us.

Why? So that we through his poverty could be rich. He came to end the spiritual war. In what he did 2000 years ago- his birth, his life, his death and resurrection- he has defeated Satan. We know that one day, the war will be over. We now still live in the battlefield- but the outcome has already been decided. We can now change allegiences, and be reconciled to our maker, because of what Jesus has done. And so we know, we can be rich, eternally reconciled with God, because of the incredible generosity of Jesus Christ to us.

So- today, let’s enjoy and celebrate generosity. Enjoy opening your presents, and also enjoy the experience of giving your presents to your loved ones. Enjoy your generosity. And as you do that, remember that your joy in your generosity is actually a reflection of the great generosity of God to you. That’s something which will really revolutionise our whole idea of generosity, isn’t it?



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