With one of our favorite holidays coming up, my wife and I have had generosity on our minds a lot lately. And just the other day we had a fascinating conversation about the meaning of a generous spirit. A conversation I just had to share with you.
We were trying to puzzle out, religious beliefs notwithstanding, just what is so polarizing about this holiday. That is, of those who participate in it, why do some find it to be the very meaning of joy, while others anchor it to nothing but stress and anxiety?
It’s a much bigger question than I’m going to solve in the next thousand words. But we did uncover one realization that rather knocked our stockings off, and that I do want to share.
What Actually Is a Generous Spirit?
A common theme of kids’ Christmas movies is the moral that it’s not a holiday of “getting,” it’s a holiday of “giving.” As we grow up, we learn to respect this lesson, but I’m not convinced that we all fully grok the meaning behind it.
To varying degrees, we shift our attention away from the childlike thrill of “what am I going to get,” and toward “what is someone else going to get from me?”
It’s the start of a meaningful transition, but it doesn’t go all the way to unlocking a generous spirit. It keeps the focus of gifting occasions on the getting, rather than on the giving. Sure it’s focusing on someone else’s getting rather than your own, but it’s not yet fully focused on the giving. A truly generous spirit goes one step further.
Developing a generous spirit means to set loose your creative energy and throw yourself fully into the act of giving. Not just making sure that someone else receives a gift, but to share love with them by means of gifting.
That may take the form of a tangible gift, a service or gesture, or even a few kind words.
Whatever it is, it is propelled forward by a motivation to bring happiness to others. To give them a moment of joy, of delight, of feeling seen and loved.
6 Ways to Tap into Your Generous Spirit
1. Give with Both Hands
In Japanese culture, it is considered proper etiquette to give (and receive) gifts with both hands. To do so is considered a sign of respect.
I’ve always loved this tradition, both as an actual practice and as a metaphor.
When you use both of your hands to give someone a gift, it shows them that you are all the way there. In that moment, you are fully committed to the act of giving. You’re not dividing your attention. You don’t have one foot out the door. Giving is the only thing that you’re doing.
As well as a physical gesture, giving with both hands is a metaphor. It’s a powerful expression of a generous spirit. Be all the way there in your generosity. Hold nothing of yourself back. Go all in, and give others the chance to feel this full expression of kindness.
2. Think Selfishly About Generosity
I’m going to go ahead and guess you didn’t come to an article about generosity expecting me to tell you to be more selfish. But stick with me for a second, because this is HUGE.
Being generous in a way that you’re not enjoying just doesn’t bring the same spark for anybody. This is why focusing on the “getting,” even if it’s someone else’s getting, isn’t the right answer.
Instead, try focusing entirely on the giving. Focus on yourself, having fun and feeling enthusiastic about putting your generous spirit into the world. This is the secret of how generosity can bring so much joy not just to the recipient, but to the giver as well.
This embodiment of a generous spirit will shine through in the thoughts and experiences you are able to give to others. Selfish givers give better.
3. Measure Only in Enthusiasm
“36?! But last year, last year I had 37!”
There will always be those who insist on measuring their gifts. Whether through quantity, size, or monetary value, people who do this will always struggle to be happy with the gifts that they give OR receive.
There is no metric, no number that can define (or contain) a great gift. Nothing that can be measured makes a difference in a generous act.
The best gifts, and generous acts of any kind, can be expensive or completely free. They can be massive in scale, or so small they’d be easy to miss. One carefully selected gift can make all the difference, and so can a waterfall of thoughtful little tokens.
Instead of trying to check certain boxes to make a gift appropriate or sufficient, go for enthusiasm. Go for the loudest, most full-throated expression of how much you care about this person. Put that energy into the process, and see what comes out.
4. Forget About the Rules
See if you can answer this question:
How do you view gifting occasions, like birthdays and holidays? Do you see an obligation, an event where you have to give a gift to certain people? Or do you see a special ritual, an opportunity to celebrate them through generosity?
Treating generosity as an obligation shoots the whole process in the foot. Suddenly, instead of sharing kindness and building connection, you’re doing a chore.
Having a generous spirit means giving freely to others because you want to. Not because you have to, or because of any expectation of reciprocity.
If you treat every gifting occasion as a helpful reminder to celebrate others (instead of a looming deadline), then you’ll quickly find how much more fun you’re having with the process. Instead of anxiety, there’s room for joy. And when you feel more joy in the giving, your recipient will undoubtedly feel more joy in the receiving.
5. What You Have in Abundance, Give with Abandon
There’s an old expression, “give until it hurts.” Well I think that’s crap. I say, give until it feels great.
A generous spirit doesn’t have to mean self-sacrifice. It doesn’t have to cost you your last dollar, or take 200 hours of sweat-soaked DIY effort to qualify as generous.
There are some things we can give that we all have in abundance. You’ll never run out of kind words, polite gestures, smiles, or quality time. Yet freely giving these things away to others is no less delightful or fulfilling.
Generosity does not gain value from its cost. Generous acts that come at a cost to you are one way to express loving energy to others. But there are other ways, too.
Lean in, be enthusiastic, and give what you can give. If you’re looking to bring joy to others, and enjoying yourself doing it, then you’re in exactly the right place.
6. It’s the (Actual) Thought That Counts
Right up there with “‘tis better to give than receive,” is another expression we’ve rather lost the lede on. And I’m sure you know the phrase as well as I do.
Do you ever notice that people usually only say “it’s the thought that counts” after giving a gift they didn’t put much thought into? Almost as a weird sort of apology?
The word “thought” in that expression doesn’t mean “I thought I had to get you something, and this is all I could come up with.” It refers to the conscious thought, the mental effort that went into your generosity.
When you hand someone a paper bag with something you picked up at the gas station on the way over and say, “well it’s the thought that counts,” you’re right. It is the thought that counts, and it’s clear that you put no thought into this. You were just following the rules (see #4).
A generous spirit draws on actual thought, mental energy put into thinking about a specific person. What do they love? What would give them a smile? Is there anything missing from their life right now, or a recurring problem that you can solve for them?
That’s the type of thought that really counts.
It’s Time to Tap Into Your Generous Spirit
Generosity is not a trait that some people have and others don’t.
It’s not a milestone that you reach in your life after taking a certain amount of care of yourself.
And most crucially, it’s not an obligation, something we must force ourselves to do so that others can feel some sliver of joy.
Generosity is a skill that we can all practice, and eventually master. It’s a skill that brings deep, fulfilling joy to the participant as well as all those around them. It’s a valuable skill for celebrating everyday life. And it’s contagious.
What have you been doing lately to get in touch with your generous spirit? How are you going to continue to hone your skill of giving with your whole self in ways that make you feel great?