The Practice of Generosity & Joy

Recently I had a really clear insight into the relationship between generosity and joy that I can’t wait to share with you! My experience is that tapping into generosity and making it a practice is one of the best and easiest ways to access joy and contentment. Who doesn’t want that?

As always, I encourage you not to believe anything I say! This is something I encourage you to try for yourself and see if it works. I’m not asking for blind faith here, I know this to be true from my own experience, I have tried it and it works, and it’s something I encourage you to try for yourself. What I’m going to talk about is a practice, that means you have to do it, you have to practice, and see if you get results.


Saying that this is a spiritual practice means it is related to getting in touch with a bigger sense of ourselves than our very small, self-centered me that thinks the world revolves around us and takes everything personally. A spiritual practice is something that connects us with something bigger than ourselves and reminds us that we are all interconnected. This is true for every religion and every culture. And in my experience, it’s impossible to be happy without spiritual practice, since I have never met anyone who has found otherwise. So I can stand behind my personal belief that this stuff works and it’s worth considering if you want to be happy.

So that being said, it might be helpful to clarify some concepts so we all share the basic language to understand what I’m talking about.

Part of my basic understanding is the belief in basic goodness, or that each person is inherently perfect and wonderful, and the work is in peeling back the layers of the onion to expose the best version of you that already exists. Your best self is already there, and through a lifelong process of self-awareness we become more and more in touch with our true nature, which is beautiful and wise.

Another basic understanding is that we are humans and are born with certain very primitive instincts that guide a lot of our behaviors and are based on survival. I call this the “primitive me” or “small me” because it feels very small and isolated and is concerned mainly about threats from outside and protecting itself from harm, so it is defended and fearful. We are also born with a much deeper capacity to have compassion and empathy for others, to love and connect, and I call this part the “big me”- the best version of you, that some people call our authentic self or true self.

One way I visualize this is the waves on the deep-sea ocean. The waves are the “small me,” constantly changing and reacting to changes in the weather, calm when things are good but crazy when they are not, and never peaceful for long periods. But the ocean underneath is stable and calm no matter what happens and is always there. We may only see the surface but the deep ocean underneath is still there.

Another way to visualize this is to imagine that we are separated from the best version of ourselves by a black curtain with a small hole in it. As we become more self aware the hole gets bigger so we are more in touch with the basic goodness that is already there. Some days the hole is bigger and some days it is smaller, but what is on the other side never changes, only our awareness of it changes.

We get in touch with our “big me” whenever we feel compassion for another person, when we do something kind for another person, maybe when we see something beautiful in nature, see a baby animal, witness a birth or a death. Our “small me” is in control when we feel ashamed, embarrassed, jealous, fearful, defensive, or think we are better or worse than someone else. Especially when we take things personally as if everything is about us. Anything that closes us off to others is the small me. Anything that opens our hearts to others is the big me. So you get the picture. I am terrifically fortunate to work in a profession that allows us so much access to the “big me.” Many people on a factory line, manipulating the truth to sell products, or working in a confrontational, divisive businesses like litigation don’t have that luxury. So I understand my privilege, not everyone is so fortunate.

Another basic concept to consider is that all suffering or stress is caused by our inability to accept reality as it is, or wanting things to be different than they are. If you think about what causes you stress you might agree that this is true. We either want something we don’t have or don’t want something we do have. Or once we have something, we are afraid that we are going to lose it. Rarely are we perfectly satisfied with things the way they are, and if so it doesn’t last for long. We say things like “it should not be this way” or “this was not supposed to happen” which is really crazy when you think about it, as if our opinion about reality matters to the universe! “Small me” thinks that things should be a certain way and the universe just doesn’t comply. This is human nature and it’s nothing to criticize yourself for, it’s the way we are all made. It goes back to that primitive brain that is always on the lookout for danger and constantly wants to protect itself.

So of course, we all want things that are pleasurable and don’t want things that are not pleasurable, and because we have so little control over that we are constantly in a state of mild distress. We have a “poverty mentality” or a feeling that we are not enough or we don’t have enough. No matter how much money or belongings we acquire we always want more. Our new car makes us happy for a week or two then we fixate on something else. We think a relationship or a promotion or baby will make us happy and it does for a short while then we are back to craving something else. We wake up telling ourselves that we don’t have enough. I didn’t get enough sleep, I’m not thin enough, I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough help… this is the human condition and it’s a great idea to realize that and start where we are.

Some cultures struggle with this less than we do, as Americans have perfected this idea of “not enough” and it feeds our economy because we always want to buy more, it’s what every consumer industry thrives off. If we thought we had enough we would stop buying stuff. So we are born thinking we don’t have enough and then conditioned throughout our lives to be certain of that. It’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we are doing it. As a result we specialize in the USA in depression and anxiety and self-hatred. The “poverty mentality” is shared by and possibly championed by the wealthiest people. No amount of money is ever enough.

So in this culture of “poverty mentality” and “not enough,” it’s no wonder that our primitive brain naturally wants to keep everything for itself. If we accept the principal which I have learned from experience that this constant stress and dissatisfaction is caused by “clinging” to or craving for things to be a certain way, or not wanting them to be a certain way, it’s helpful to imagine what clinging looks and feels like. Imagine yourself with fists clenched, tight, closed, clinging and craving for pleasure, and never being able to hold onto it. Then imagine a time when you have experienced joy, or even just peaceful contentment. I’m not talking about the cheerleader type joy…just peaceful contentment. At those times our hearts are open, we are relaxed, our hands are open, we feel at peace. If you try that for a minute it’s a totally different physical experience. Many of us only ever experienced this for short intervals on vacation, or when something we were craving has happened and we actually got what we wanted.

Try this right now. Sit in a position with fists clenched, face and body clenched, desperately trying to hold onto something that is inevitably slipping away (like your youth, your children, your tidy garden…); then completely relax, open your hands, relax your face and body, and assume a position of accepting things as they are. Notice how this feels. And how would you prefer to live most of the rest of your life? Clinging or relaxed? And notice that it is a choice. You can change it.

Let me ask you this question- have you ever got exactly what you wanted, even one time? For sure I have! That perfect car, the babies, the house we built for our family. And how did that work out for me? Did I live happily ever after? Of course not! After a while the thing I really wanted became just normal and no big deal and I wanted something else.

To break free from this cycle of stress and dissatisfaction, constantly wanting for more and more, we need to shift to operating more from our “big me” and less from our “small me.” The “small me” is never satisfied and is doomed to a life of discontent. Not that life is all bad for “small me”, there are periods of great pleasure and joy, followed by suffering when those moments end, as they all do. Life is a roller coaster where Friday is great and Monday sucks and vacations are great but coming home is miserable. We are happy when our hair is colored and dissatisfied when it grows out grey. We are happy for an hour then miserable for an hour. We take everything personally and constantly have our feelings hurt, we are jealous and fearful. We are happy when we get validation from outside that people like us and crushed when they don’t. That’s everyday suffering. Some people are resigned to thinking “that’s just life.” But I disagree. There’s another option.

“Big me” understands that I have enough and I am enough. Only at that point is it possible to relax. Long term internal peace and contentment are characteristics of “big me,” and our sense of happiness grows as we learn to spend more time operating from there. Accepting that things are the way they are and being in alignment with reality is much less stressful than constantly fighting against it. Which is not at all to say that we should become a blob and never want to improve or aspire to be our best self or say “oh well, it is what it is, so I won’t bother trying any more”. It is starting with accepting things as they are, then making aspirations to become more self-aware from the starting point of accepting the way things are right now.

We have a very small view of the way things are supposed to be and the way things are supposed to look. It’s important to remember that my own view of the world is the size of a pea. We crave for anything that makes the world look the way we think it should, like the way it’s portrayed on the Kardashians (how happy are they?) or the perfect life we think our neighbors live. We push away anything that deviates from our pea-sized view. Traveling is a great way to open our eyes to this reality. Other people in other cities or countries or cultures don’t see things the way we do. It’s impossible that we are right and they are wrong, since everyone is sure that they are right. What’s fashionable in West Africa would look ridiculous in Houston. Some cultures think it’s good to be chubby and some think it’s good to be skinny. It’s all made up. Understanding our conditioning is key to understanding the causes of our suffering and how to reduce our suffering and be happier.

So in this culture of not enough and accumulating things for ourselves it’s easy to see how generosity is so radical. Giving away our time, talent, money, or possessions requires enormous courage to face our fear of “not enough” and go against the stream.

Generosity may be simply listening or giving time to a loved one; everyone has enough to give. It doesn’t require being wealthy or especially talented and can be as simple as giving a smile or kind word to a stranger. Generosity of spirit may be as simple as giving a generous assumption when we are not sure what is going on in a situation, assuming the best until proven otherwise.

Any time we practice generosity we are practicing the antidote for clinging and craving, which is the origin of our suffering. And notice the word “practice”. That means we do it, and we try it and we make mistakes and self-correct and do it again, and again, and again.

Generosity is an act of letting go. We are practicing letting go of the cause of our stress and suffering, being trapped in the “small me,” which is extremely powerful.

Receiving generosity can be as difficult as offering. Learning to accept generosity is a great practice. If someone says “that’s a nice dress” it’s good to say “thank you” instead of “oh this old thing, it’s nothing special”….if the gift of generosity bounces off us and is not received, then we are preventing a moment of real connection and defending our hearts. Accepting the generosity of another is allowing the giver to fulfill their desire to be generous. Don’t prevent that. Be a grateful recipient. I personally struggle with this as “small me” doesn’t want to feel that I owe anyone, I would much rather be the giver than the receiver. That’s good to look at.

In that way generosity is a practice in connection, which as a basic human need, right up there with food and water and shelter. I tried a generosity practice this week when I was feeling kind of down and small and dissatisfied. While I was running I decided to make eye contact and smile at every runner that passed me. This is not normal behavior and surprised a lot of people. But I got a lot of smiles back . For a few seconds I was connecting with a stranger simply by giving them the gift of a smile. Think how many opportunities we have to practice this every day in our lives. This is something I would encourage you to experiment with today. Give the gift of a really genuine warm smile with eye contact to as many people as you can and see what happens. Notice if it feels scary or uncomfortable, and if it does then congratulate yourself on your courage. Doing things that are scary or uncomfortable require courage.

Generosity is the practice of letting go with no expectation of return. If you are expecting something back then that is not generosity, it is a contract. Have you ever said something like “after all the things that I have done for you, this is what I get?” That’s something my kids have heard from me many times! We have to be careful there to discern what is genuine giving and what is manipulation.

Here’s a type of generosity that I have had a hard time with over the years, called “appreciative joy” which is genuinely being happy for the good fortune of another. When someone else gets something that we want, our primitive brain says “where’s mine, what about me?” instead of being happy for the other person. It’s a real act of generosity to genuinely feel happy for another person. Imagine if your coworker gets a promotion or lost a bunch of weight, your neighbor gets a new car, your friend’s kids do better in school or get picked for the right team… how often are we really thinking “I hate them, I hope it doesn’t work out,” or even being secretly joyful when it doesn’t work out? Feeling this way doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human, but noticing when this happens and practicing appreciative joy is the antidote. You can set up little practice challenges to do during the day, like my example running. These are exercises for your generosity muscles. The more you do it the easier it gets. There’s a certain type of car that I really like and every time I see someone driving one instead of being judgmental and thinking all kinds of negative things I try to wish that they are really happy with their car and I hope it brings them joy. It’s a very radical process for me.

Joy flows from a generous heart. Freeing ourselves from wanting everything for ourselves is shifting from the “small me” me characterized by stress and not enough to the “big me” characterized by peace and happiness, or wholeheartedness. Any practice that opens our heart puts us in touch with the “big me,” that ocean of peace and happiness that is already there. Think about the way we describe people that are peaceful and happy. “Down to earth”, “real”, “an angel”, “wholehearted”. Part of us knows that this is true.

There has to be wisdom around generosity; we don’t give away until there’s nothing left or in a way that harms ourselves or others. So we don’t give away our house or the kids’ college funds. A wise person takes good care of herself and her family first, then reaches out to others. Generosity can even be to yourself.

In medicine we take an oath to first do no harm. Step one- do no harm, step two- try to make things better. If you are not ready yet to be generous at least start with step one. Don’t make things worse.

One of the most generous things we can do is to really listen to another person. Giving someone your time and full attention is a great gift and is an act of connection that puts us in touch with the “big me.”

Here’s one of my favorite poems from a 14th century Persian poet named Hafiz.

“Even after all this time the sun never said to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky.”