We've always known that being generous feels good, but
now there's scientific proof. New research published this year
by the American Psychological Association says "the warm glow" and "emotional
benefits" that result from spending
money on someone else rather than for personal benefit appears to be a
universal response among people in rich and poor nations. The international
survey comprised more than 234,000 individuals.
The researchers conclude
that such generosity has served our species as a "mechanism" that may have
carried " long-term benefits for survival over human evolutionary
history." While that may be true, the APA report doesn't investigate or explain
why, in a more personal way, people feel
good when they're being generous. To answer that, we have to look to depth
People who are lacking in generosity are likely to be entangled
to some degree in emotional conflict. That conflict produces negative emotions that
shut down the impulse to be generous. Conversely, people who are being generous
are less burdened, at least in that moment, by the inner conflict and resulting
negative emotions that plague our psyche.
What is the nature of this inner conflict? When we're
unable to be generous, we're likely entangled in conflicts having to do with
feeling deprived. Many of us tend to know ourselves to a significant degree
through the feeling that something important or even essential is missing in our
life. As a result, we can be burdened with painful impressions of deprivation
or refusal. Often we're not aware of how much we're being influenced by these
negative emotions. If we were to find words to express this emptiness and
negativity, we might say something to this effect: The suffering in my life, even my sense of self, can be measured
through the chronic dissatisfaction of what I don't have and what I may never possess.
If I don't acquire these possessions, or fill myself with the recognition and
validation of others, I am ultimately worthless and my life is a failure.
When some people think about giving or being generous,
they become emotionally preoccupied with the sense that they'll now have less
for themselves. This sense of deprivation blocks the impulse to be generous,
leaving us to experience a sense of emptiness along with some degree of
This problem could be called "the Deprivation Conflict."
At a conscious level, we want to feel gratified and fulfilled, yet at an
unconscious level we haven't resolved an expectation, dating back into early
childhood, dealing with impressions of being refused and deprived.
Consequently, we experience a chronic sense of not getting and a feeling of missing
out on life's benefits and goodies. We're often not aware of possessing
this poverty mentality, and we believe that "wanting to get" is a worthy
pursuit and that our desire or instinct to accumulate goods or wealth is commendable.
On the surface of awareness we take our emotional life for granted, providing
it's not excruciatingly painful, and hence we fail to detect the underlying
pangs of unfulfilled desire.
This underlying preoccupation with what's missing in
our life is strong enough that it can be termed "an emotional attachment" or "an
emotional addiction." The feeling has lingered in our psyche from the oral
stage of childhood. Babies have a highly subjective sense of reality, and they
can become frustrated when their desires for oral gratification aren't
instantly accommodated. The subsequent feeling of being refused or deprived
lingers in our psyche, and as adults we can experience our world through these
unresolved emotions. This hodgepodge of unconscious negativity doesn't support
the spirit of generosity.
Our ego hates to acknowledge that we could still be
clinging to expectations of deprivation or refusal, and so we produce an unconscious
defense which claims, "I'm not looking to feel refused or deprived. I want to get. My desires (and my credit-card
debt) prove how much I want to get."
Hence, greed, envy, and fear of loss serve as unconscious defenses (just as
they're also painful symptoms) of the underlying conflict.
Even when people have all they need, they can still
accentuate in everyday ways the feelings of being deprived. Though they have
money, some people stare into empty cupboards or an empty refrigerator
bemoaning their circumstances. Compulsive spending and shopping are
self-defeating activities that are fueled by "the Deprivation Conflict." Our
defense system's instinct to "prove" we want to get (to cover up our unresolved
emotional attachment to feeling deprived or refused) is so powerful that many
of us unwittingly enslave ourselves in the form of debt obligations. When debt-ridden,
we heighten the sense of feeling deprived while producing the self-sabotage
that accompanies inner conflict. The spirit of generosity wanes under these
Acting out these unconscious attachments also produces
another form of self-sabotage. Modern consumerism is, in part, a product of our
instinct to cope with inner emptiness. In rampant consumerism, we've created a
monster with a huge appetite for the planet's natural resources. It's depleting
and polluting the planet, impoverishing us and future generations. Consumerism
creates the illusion that we're rich. Yet the goodies of the marketplace are
trinkets compared to the value of the Earth and the value of our essential self.
Who was fooled the most, the Native Americans who sold Manhattan to the Dutch
for strings of beads, or you and me who are selling the Earth to its defilers for
odd shapes of plastic, vinyl, and treated wood?
Another negative emotion is involved with the lack of generosity.
Many people, in identifying with their ego, have a powerful desire to feel
superior to others. For them, it's either feel superior or feel inferior. They
don't like seeing people raised up from poverty because they no longer can easily
feel superior to them. Hence, they feel no need to be generous. In fact, the
impulse is to refuse to be generous. When they do give money, it can be for pet
causes that promote their own shallow values or for the purpose of ego
gratification (looking good in their own eyes and in the eyes of others). Such
pseudo-generosity is less pleasurable than heart-felt generosity.
We need to be smarter about the underlying
psychological dynamics that drive our behaviors and emotions. When we
comprehend, for instance, our emotional attachment to feeling deprived, our
intelligence can now resolve the inner conflict (the desperate desire to get versus the unconscious determination
to feel deprived and refused).