Christian SMITH and Hilary DAVIDSON, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. $29.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-939490-6. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727.


While no religious believer will be surprised by their core argument that generosity paradoxically helps givers themselves flourishing, Smith and Davidson assemble a large amount of empirical data to support this traditional wisdom. The authors’ Science of Generosity Initiative combines large-scale survey data with lengthy, representative interviews, replicating the familiar format of Smith’s other studies on religion and morality in young adults.

Much of the book reinforces the now-commonplace theme that there is a very strong correlation among factors like happiness, health, and various forms of human relationships and community – including relationships where giving voluntarily of one’s time, talent, or treasure is the primary activity. Smith and Davidson even highlight the neurochemical basis for the “warm, fuzzy” feeling people talk about when being generous. For those familiar with the literature, the book can sometimes seem repetitious. But this is also a matter of being thorough: one could imagine undergraduates engaging the large amount of concrete data here and coming to see something new about the world.

Three points deserve particular highlighting. First, the most obvious question: “Does generosity causally produce well-being? Or is it actually greater well-being that causes more generosity?” (46) The authors urge readers to get beyond a “pool table” view of mechanistic causation, and instead adopt a “soccer game” view, in which players are constantly responding and readjusting to other players’ actions, in which “action is in continuous flow, and causal relations are nonlinear and highly interactive” (48). In this view, they argue, the causal arrows of well-being and generosity likely point in both directions. They reinforce each other. But for the authors, the important point is that generosity causes well-being, and they explain “nine interrelated causal mechanisms” (53). To summarize, there are neurochemical, emotional, and even physical rewards for generosity. Generosity increases a sense of efficacious agency (I can make a difference), promotes meaning in life, teaches one about the wider world, tends to increase the “number and density” of social networks, and rests on a worldview of abundance rather than scarcity. Finally, generosity curbs bad behaviors, such as “maladaptive self-absorption” and materialism. Some of these relationships are also mutually reinforcing (surely a worldview of abundance leads to generosity, rather than just proceeding from it), but they do form a convincing case that generosity’s “side effects” actually do cause well-being.

Second, this thesis is also reinforced by the author’s recognition that the reverse relationship also holds: ungenerosity leads to unhappiness, miserliness leads to being miserable. This “self-interested approach to happiness” comes out particularly powerfully in the authors’ interviews with particularly ungenerous subjects. They do not tend to come across like a mean Scrooge, but rather as people whose general outlook on society is that “everyone but the most disempowered should fend for themselves and take care of their own problems” and that “individuals ought to be given full freedom to live out their private desires without fearing collateral damage to others or the public sphere” (125). This default libertarianism seems similarly self-reinforcing – such individuals often avoid contact with anyone whom they deem to not fit this worldview, and thus see their lives only from the outside. While Smith’s study is not longitudinal, there is a suggestion (in a striking typology of generous and ungenerous) that such ungenerous people end up growing old and dying alone, increasingly disappointed and frustrated by life. One of the more surprising themes of this study is how ungenerous Americans really are, and how many people profess (without much guilt) a life creed in which they do not owe anything to anyone.

Third, from the very beginning, the authors insist that only a certain sort of generosity confers these benefits: one that is not a “haphazard behavior” but “in its mature form…a basic, personal, moral orientation to life” (4). True generosity must be “authentic,” in the sense that it must be truly concerned with doing good for others, and it must be regular. In other words, generosity must be a virtue. The empirical evidence for this claim is weaker: it seems to rest largely on the observation that occasional blood donors, organ donors, estate plans, and occasional lending do not seem correlated with happiness and well-being. These actions seem to be occasional and unplanned; for example, they point out that lending to others is usually done in response to a request, rather than proactively (28). I would add that these actions seem to lack the ongoing interactivity and sociality that is related to the benefits of generosity. The “giving” that Smith highlights is substantially giving – at least 5%, and preferably 10%, of income – and such support typically goes to associations, churches, and charities with which one has an ongoing relationship. Perhaps more important for this point, Smith’s interviews – always the richest part of his research – do suggest that people develop fairly consistent patterns of thought and behavior on these topics, in which social views, daily choices, and emotive responses reinforce one’s characteristic generosity or lack thereof.

Social ethicists will surely worry that the authors make too little of structural realities. It is true that their descriptions do not always fit stereotypes: they are certainly not making a case for generous rich people and stingy poor people. In fact, their descriptions often suggest that people of similar class backgrounds may have very different orientations to generosity – an interesting question for Catholic ethicists to explore, since the majority of Smith’s interviewees are at least residually Christian, yet seem to have very different views about giving. I can imagine complementary studies of these correlations in Scandinavian countries that might help illuminate structural questions. Moreover, the importance of a “scarcity mindset” suggests that it would be easier to foster generosity overall if workplaces were more stable, generous, and caring, and that one did not have anxieties about retirement, for example. On the other hand, beyond the very poorest, Smith’s work reinforces a non-partisan point that stable and strengthened community networks of many kinds are really what make for good lives – including generous ones. Libertarian detachment from others can happen in trendy urban lofts, exurban tract homes, and rural trailers, but the common thread is a suspicion of others and an orientation to self-preservation and enhancement. Libertarian individualism and materialism, this book shows, is not just a social problem, but one that makes the individual unhappy. The authors show convincingly that encouraging generous lives is in fact what everyone should want, even for their own happiness.