That generosity and compassion are good for our health is an ever-popular topic among self-help authors and researchers. Most of us require little convincing that the world would be a better place if we were kinder to one another and to ourselves. Research indicates that generosity increases happiness (Dunn et al., 2008), increases job satisfaction (Moynihan et al., 2015), fosters collective success by improving collaboration (Stewart & Plotkin, 2013), and caregiving improves our overall sense of well-being (Poulin et al., 2010). Generosity in married couples is associated with both greater happiness and improved long-term health outcomes (National Marriage Project, 2011). Furthermore, doing volunteer work is associated with improvement in mental health and physical well-being (Jenkinson, et al., 2013).
“Sometimes true acceptance of what others are really like can be the key to true connection with them.”Daniel
So why aren’t we more generous?
Part of the answer seems to be that, while generosity looks good “on paper,” it’s not so easy to bring to life. Take the case of Emma and Janelle:
“As I was heading out the door on a Saturday morning,” said Emma, “I got a call from my doctor. ‘Emma,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the testing we did shows that you have ovarian cancer. I’m sorry to call you over the weekend, but I thought it was important. We need to start treatment right away.’”
“Instantly I felt as if my life were over — that suddenly all I had to look forward to was death — and probably a painful one at that. I said the only thing I could think to say: ‘Okay doctor. Just tell me when to come in and I’ll be there.’”
Right after I hung up, my friend Janelle called. “You won’t believe it,” I told her. “I just got off the phone with my doc. I’ve got ovarian cancer. How bad it is they don’t know yet, but — ovarian cancer! I’m so glad to hear your voice: I can hardly think.”
“‘Oh, Emma!” Janelle replied, “I’m so sorry! But it’s weird that it’s happening now because Mike just told me he’s moving out! He said he hasn’t loved me for years — that he and this girl he works with have been seeing each other for over a year! I had no idea! My God! But how weird that we’ve both gotten terrible news at the time!”
What does this conversation tell us about Emma and Janelle’s relationship?
Emma might reasonably feel that Janelle, whose life-crisis is certainly real, would not see it as on par with Emma’s life-threatening illness. In fact, many of us might see Janelle’s reaction as a deal-breaker when it comes to continuing their friendship.
“When faced with the choice between generosity and resentment, it can take a lot of work to learn how to pivot and embrace the opportunity. If it is genuine, it usually will pay off for all involved, though it’s important to distinguish being generous from being misused.”Grant
“I’d just told Janelle I have a type of cancer that a lot of women die from, but she could only focus on Mike’s leaving her. It was like a second gut-punch. But, then, I knew Janelle well enough to know how vulnerable she is. She easily gets thrown off by relationships—not just with boyfriends, but with anybody. At the same time, she’s not too tuned in to what’s going on with anybody except herself. It kinda makes our relationship unbalanced compared to other friendships. But she actually also has qualities that I can appreciate. So, strange to say, by just listening to her instead of panicking on the phone about my cancer — I mean, the doctor didn’t know how serious it was yet anyway. The funny thing was that talking to — well, actually, listening to and tending to — Janelle left me able to think about my own situation more calmly. It was weird.”
“Janelle does kind of take it for granted that others will accommodate her, let’s call it, ah, immaturity. And I used to resent it—so much so at one point I kept my distance from her for over a year. Little by little, though, we started becoming friendly again, even though I knew she hadn’t really changed. Besides, if I’m going to be honest, there are things about me that she doesn’t really care for, so, what the hell? And anyway, Janelle has actually been there for me when I’ve needed a hand with things. It seems that accepting each other as we really are has changed what it’s like to be friends with her. Not that I expect, or that she’s offered, to pick me up from chemo every week, but when I ask her directly for help with something, she does show up for me.”
Emma’s having integrated her insight and feelings about Janelle enabled her to approach Janelle’s relationship crisis with compassionate empathy. The result was a surprisingly deeper connection with her friend.
“Seeing the help that we offer others manifest in a sense of feeling truly cared for and being genuinely helped by other person is immensely rewarding.”Mark
However, that isn’t always how such situations play out. Relationships in which one participant is always doing the “giving” (a role usually learned in early childhood) while the other participant does all the “taking” results in isolation for both parties, a dynamic the authors call “irrelationship.” Its opposite and antidote is the development of a balance of giving and receiving in and for both parties — a state that the authors call relationship sanity.
Emma learned more about relationship sanity while she was getting chemo: “It was so rough that sometimes I actually wished I would just die. And Janelle’s divorce was playing out at the same time. Though I wasn’t at my best, I‘d pick up the phone and call her, which always made me feel better even though she was always caught up in Janelle. In fact, I think that was probably a big part of why her marriage ended. I remember that, early on, Mike was always trying to please her. But I can easily imagine he got so tired of the diminishing returns that he finally started looking elsewhere. I don’t want to compare my relationship to Janelle with her marriage, but I’m pretty okay accepting her the way she is. All the same, I’m glad I’m not married to her.”
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008) Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, Science 319, 1687.
Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R. S., Rogers, M., Bambra, C. L., Laing, I. & Richards S. H. (2013) Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health. 2013 Aug 23;13:773.
Moynihan, D. P., DeLeire, T., & Enami, K. (2015) A Life Worth Living: Evidence on the Relationship between Prosocial Motivation, Career Choice, and Happiness. American Review of Public Administration. 4(3): 311-326.
Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Ubel, P. A., Smith, D. M., Jankovic, A. & Langa, K. M. (2010). Does a helping hand mean a heavy heart? Helping behavior and well-being among spouse caregivers. Psychology and Aging, 25, 108-117.
The State of Our Unions, Marriage in America (2011) The National Marriage Project, University of Virginia Institute for American Values, downloaded on 6/5/2016 from http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Union_2011.pdf
Stewart, A., & Plotkin, J.B. (2013) From extortion to generosity, evolution in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. PNAS,110: 15348-15353.