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The science and art of generosity

27 January 2015, 13:36 Lisa Lazarus

'He’s a Take,' my father-in-law used to say about people who didn't like to pay their share of a restaurant bill.

You know the type. After a long dinner the bill arrives, and somebody – the Take, who is happy to receive but not to give – disappears, often to the toilet. Nature’s call is certainly much stronger than the urge to pay up.

What makes some people happy to splurge while others want to hoard?

There are theories about where generosity or its opposite, tightness, comes from. And there are studies and suggestions around how to be more generous.

Freud believed that the origins of generosity or stinginess are psychological and have a lot to do with one’s early environment. Specifically, toilet training.

According to him, in secure, trusting homes, children are better able to "let go" and, ultimately, become generous. Conversely, in an untrusting environment, the child is more likely to hold on to whatever she has and be stingy.

Maybe this is where the expression "tight ass" comes from.

Whether Freud was right or wrong, there are ways that people can be influenced to behave more generously.

One way is to give them, or get them to release, more oxytocin, which seems to increase levels of generosity. Oxytocin – and I bet you didn't know this – can be sprayed up your nose.

In a study reported in Psychology Today, researchers found that administering oxytocin via a nasal spray increased generosity by 80% compared with the placebo group, who got spritzed with plain old salt water.

As a powerful "bonding" hormone, oxytocin is also stimulated through sex, breastfeeding or childbirth, so you might try to have your friend do one of those things before going out for dinner with her to ensure she reaches for that bill with enthusiasm.

If that feels like more trouble than it’s worth, you can have your friend watch a movie.

Just make sure it’s the right kind of movie. One study showed that people’s oxytocin – and generosity – levels spiked after they watched an emotional video about a father and his young son, who is dying of cancer.

Alternatively, you can try a few of these ideas from Becoming Minimalistto inspire generosity.

1. Start small – don’t feel ashamed about only giving a couple of Rand to a charity of your choice.

2. Divert one expense – give up one espresso a week to donate to a meaningful cause.

3. Find something you’re passionate about – it’s easier to be generous when you really feel strongly about the cause you’re supporting.

4. Spend time with a generous person – we’re like monkeys; we learn through watching others.

5. Receive gifts – okay, this might sound a bit odd, but a lot of people experience discomfort when others behave generously towards them. Try and enjoy the pleasure of getting. In turn, this makes it easier to give back to others.

There are benefits to being a generous person. A few years back we did a major spring-clean of the house. We amassed a pile of books that we had never read and came up with the idea of a ‘boek and koek’ party to give them away to friends.

I've had a few story-worthy parties in my life, but the boek and koek party was particularly special.

I felt lighter and happier afterwards. And I think that’s the thing with generosity: it lifts you out of yourself, if only for a moment, and who doesn't sometimes want that kind of escape?

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- Women24


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