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The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose

Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed By Henry Hyunsuk Kim, Sociology and Anthropology, Wheaton College

Most people regardless of their religious affiliations are familiar with aphorisms such as “the giver is more blessed than the receiver” and “it is better to give than to receive.” Perhaps for some persons whether biblical exegesis or eisegesis was employed is a salient issue. Another matter may concern evincing a cause and effect relationship between the act of giving and being “more blessed” or experiencing “better” (however these are defined). Sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson try to marshal such (causal) evidence in their intriguing book, The Paradox of Generosity.

The first two sentences of the book are: “GENEROSITY IS PARADOXICAL. Those who give, receive back in return” (1). This motif is repeated throughout the book and is initially posited as a cause-and-effect relationship: “Generous practices actually create enhanced personal well-being. The association between generosity and well-being is not accidental, spurious, or simply an artifact of reverse causal influence” (2). The crux of the book is that practicing the virtue of generosity predicates positive outcomes. Conversely, not practicing generosity may foster deleterious outcomes. If you are wondering what most of us actually do (as was I),1 the readers are told that “many Americans fail to live generous lives” (2).

Just when I began to become uncomfortable by a specious explanation of reductionistic causality, the authors (later) acknowledged bi-directionality via quantitative and qualitative attributional measures. In fact, their two different metaphors of causality – billiards and soccer – cogently differentiated linear and non-linear social explanations (48). In billiards a player strikes the cue ball which then strikes another ball and this (linear) chain reaction continues until all energy comes to rest. The player is in complete control of her or his action, thinks only about an expected outcome, and acts accordingly. In soccer, there is positive feedback as players must be aware of what other players are doing in relation to the ball. One does not merely strike the ball but is in constant motion, acting and readjusting to what the other players are doing. If one is not privy to the actual mathematics behind non-linearity (such as chaos), Smith and Davidson provide a wonderful analogy for those familiar with billiards and soccer (“football”).

Given this caveat, five out of nine generosity attributes were noted to have efficacy:

Giving money, volunteering, being relationally generous, being a generous neighbor and friend, and personally valuing the importance of being a generous person are all significantly, positively correlated with greater personal happiness, physical health, a stronger sense of purpose in life, avoidance of symptoms of depressions, and a greater interest in personal growth. (44)

The four measures of generosity that had

no statistically significant association with reported happiness … [were] giving blood at least once in the previous year, being an organ donor, lending personal possessions, and giving money or possessions through estate planning in a legal will to a nonprofit not involving one’s own family. (25)

Why were these latter measures ineffective? The authors claimed that these were one-time acts of generosity rather than practices of generosity, thus further substantiating the “paradox of generosity.”

As noted earlier, the book is intriguing. Nonetheless, I want to address some aspects where I found the book wanting. First, the authors could have provided specific measures of association rather than only providing p-values (direction and strength of association versus statistical significance). Second, at times data in the book was dumped in prose and visual form without any substance as if they had to create filler to meet a minimum page requirement (there are 27 charts in the first chapter). Third, as a fellow sociologist I was a bit surprised and uncomfortable regarding an overemphasis on agency. The authors delineated the benefits of being generous as well as the converse (the inimical outcomes and or associations of those who are not generous) and then suggested a simple causal relationship that Americans can set in motion: “If Americans want to become happier, healthier people who live with greater purpose, suffer less depression, and enjoy more personal growth, one way they might better accomplish this is to learn to be more generous” (112). What those aspiring to be generous should choose to do is then described in another place:

Generous people make time to cook meals at home, eat well, take evening strolls, ride bikes with their kids, and run with their friends. In addition, since they are generally more social and active in their communities, few highly generous Americans live sedentary lives or find their time zapped by a full DVR queue, or surfing the Internet. (144)

I am not precluding the need to enact “correct” choices; as a Christian, of course not(!). Yet making choices (agency) is not the same as the conditions of choosing (structure and contingency).2 As if ready to preempt this counterargument the authors posit: “We want to be clear: not every act or practice of generosity necessarily improves happiness, health, and purpose in every participant’s life” (93). Perhaps it would have been helpful if they addressed how structure, agency, and contingency are connected. If some disciplines are castigated for overemphasizing agency (such micro-economics, psychology, and abstracted theology) then those that emphasize structure (the conditions of choosing) could also be misinterpreted as fatalistic systems; the latter is a common misunderstanding of sociology.

As sociologists, Smith and Davidson could have noted the interplay between structure, agency, and contingency. For example, think of the fascinating chaos diagram where 0 < r < 4 and 0 < x < 1 for f(x) = rx(1-x). There is an initial condition regarding the values of r and x and the function of x. After iterations whereby the output becomes the input (a positive feedback loop), the value(s) of x is always one of three outcomes: a fixed point, a set of bifurcation points (period doubling), or a chaotic region. Accordingly, under certain contexts generosity may be beneficial or foster iatrogenesis.

Fourth, and finally, it is in their attempt to address counterarguments generally and “social network connections” specifically (49 ff.) that the book shows both weaknesses as well as great possibilities for future research. The authors claim: “Generosity expands the number and density of social-network relational ties, which tends to lead to greater happiness and health” and “Many practices of generosity involve extending and strengthening the ties that generous people have in their social networks” (78; italics in original). I need to interject that using the phrase “social network connections” (49, or any combination of words entailing “networks”) is not the same thing as social network analysis (SNA) proper.3 Describing social networks and employing actual metrics are not synonymous.

Ironically, Smith and Davidson’s analysis was based on attributional data which serves well for statistical analyses but not for SNA.4 Further, without employing SNA they may have misinterpreted some of their findings. For example, they asked: “Why were four particular forms of generosity (giving blood, donating organs, lending possessions, estate giving) not significantly associated with greater well-being?” (50). Their answer was that these were not practices of generosity but were one-time acts. However, could it be that these activities were not likely to be enacted within social networks when compared to the other five generosity variables? Some network scholars argue that social ties (structure) may predicate certain health outcomes.5 Thus, when Smith and Davidson posit that “the percentage of those in excellent or very good health declines as Americans become less financially generous” (33), it is possible that they are making a spurious association between generous practices and health (they claimed to have controlled for class bias) as SNA evinces the possibility that networks may be an exogenous variable.

Interestingly, sociology was one of the earliest disciplines to adopt conceptual SNA.6 Though SNA has made a “comeback” in its own right and as a subset of complexity science (for example, SNA, chaos, fractals, cellular automata, synchrony and emergence, and self-organized criticality are all inter-related methods),7 sociologists have not kept abreast as well as other disciplines (particularly the physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists) in this regards. Perhaps The Paradox of Generosity may have its most generous contribution concerning those who want to pursue understanding this particular virtue within a framework of social networks or structure, agency, and contingency.

Cite this article
Henry Hyunsuk Kim, “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 409-411


  1. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as noted in Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), evinced that self-perceptions and actual behaviors do not cohere. This “discovery” helped him win a Nobel Prize in economics.
  2. In a recent CSR article, this author shows how the “culture of poverty” and “model minority” arguments co-emerged in a context of structure, agency, and contingency, Henry H. Kim, “How the Model Minority Thesis Became a Transcendent Meaning,” Christian Scholar’s Review XLIII (2014): 109-129.
  3. Charles Kadushin, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and John Scott, Social Network Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013).
  4. This point was made over 50 years ago by sociologist James S. Coleman in “The Social Study of Social Organizations with Survey Methods,” Human Organization 17 (1959): 28-36.
  5. Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and how They Shape our Lives (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009); and Thomas W. Valente, Social Networks and Health: Models, Methods, and Applications (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  6. Georg Simmel. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. K. H. Wolff (New York: The Free Press, 1950).
  7. Brian Castellani and Frederic Hafferty, Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2009).

Henry Hyunsuk Kim

Wheaton College
Henry Hyunsuk Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at Wheaton College.