As Mark Zuckerberg announces that he plans to give away 99% of his vast fortune, what is the value of generosity and can it really make us happy?
Although I’m a Buddhist, my family still celebrate Christmas in a secular sort of way. I enjoy it on the whole, but you’ll know what I mean if I say that the run-up to Christmas can feel rather like the season of spending in preparation for the season of getting.
So it was a relief this week to hear the news that Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder with a geeky image, had announced that over his lifetime he plans to give away 99 percent of his 45 billion dollar fortune. Of course, even one percent of his wealth would be more money that anyone could spend, and at that point is pretty clear that the value of giving away your money outweighs the value of getting more of it. But I wonder if that’s true however much we have.
One of the happiest people I know is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who came to Wales as a political refugee. He’s still very poor, but he’s also one of the most generous people I know. He helps people all the time, and the last time I saw him he pushed a £10 note into my pocket as we were saying goodby and told me to buy a present for my son.
There’s plenty of research to back the view that giving makes you happy. You can show through experiments that happiness is boosted more for the person who gives something than for the person who receives it. The explanation is that giving breaks the habits of thinking about what we don’t have and comparing ourselves with others. That way of thinking brings a sense of lack, while giving brings a sense of abundance.
That’s why giving or generosity is a fundamental virtue for Buddhists. Of course, our motives are likely to be mixed – and right now plenty of cynics are questioning Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation. Even thinking that giving something will make us happier introduces an element of selfishness. Buddhism’s advice is, don’t worry about that. You can think of generosity as a practice that we learn and get better at. So just give – give you money, your time, your attention: whatever’s manageable for you. And see what happens.