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The use of generosity exercises to improve the psychological well-being is a topic whose importance in psychotherapy cannot be overemphasized. Many studies have been conducted in relation to this topic with most of them replicating outcomes in different cultures around the world. However, many of the studies have concentrated more on a particular age group such as children in which the scales for measuring the elements of generosity have not been adequately applied. From the results obtained from studies on generosity, a similar conclusion has been made in that people who are generous experience better psychological well-being as opposed to those who are materialistic. In addition, a number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain aspects such as altruism in an effort to explain how generosity is evaluated. With the outcomes from a number of studies proving fruitful in psychotherapy, more still need to be done to promote understanding on the same in order to enhance its use in enhancing the psychological well-being.
Generosity is a virtue which has been defined as the inclination or disposition to act benevolently towards other people (Machan, 1998). The Center for Religion in Society (CSRS) at Notre Dame has further defined generosity as the disposition and practice of freely giving of one’s financial resources, time, and talents which may also include charitable financial giving, volunteering and the dedication of the gift for the welfare of others or common good (Collette & Morrissey 2007).
Spencer (2006) argued that generosity is a result of both egoism and altruism in an individual. Generosity represents a central therapeutic factor in terms of psychological well-being as it has the quality of making the mind and heart more receptive and adaptable to change in behavior (Dumont 2008). Psychological well-being is the idea of looking at an individual’s quality of life. There is not a single aspect to psychological well-being and it is best to be viewed as a combination of life satisfaction, affect, balance, self-esteem, moral locus of control and depression (Ryff 1989).
Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) describe generosity’s correlation with egoism as a matter of self therapy, although the altruism can sometimes be as a matter of obligation. Selflessness and genuine concern for others are both intertwined with feeling good within individuals. When a generous individual sees the positive effects of his or her selflessness, an unavoidable feeling of well-being is evident. This is a psychological effect but it trickles down to all other aspects of life. It is therefore therapeutic to encourage individuals who have a low opinion of themselves to try being generous to others without holding on to things they might not need anymore. This is a crucial step to letting go of the things that most people hold dear and it can be followed by letting go of things that are new or important such as money and valuables (Raatma, 2002).
Generosity and Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is a branch of psychology dedicated to counteract the studies of the twentieth century, which focused on dysfunction and negative human experiences (Synder & Lopez, 2009). Positive psychology places emphasis on research that addresses positive and subjective human experiences such as good character, happiness, volunteering, and generosity (Synder & Lopez, 2009). A main goal in positive psychology is to recognize strengths and virtues of individuals, that or which will allow them to thrive and contribute to the welfare of society (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007). These virtues are often mentioned and emphasized in writings including the sacred books from all faiths present in the world today.
Nelson-Jones (2005) in his book has shown that practicing virtues such as generosity and gratitude can potentially increase the satisfaction of individuals. In his book, Nelson-Jones (2005) outlines the theoretical basis of cognitive humanistic therapy, which is an eclectic combination of traditional treatment modalities with a spiritual focus. The treatment views an individual as an entire being that’s human condition involving a spiritual component. Being fully human requires self-development. Virtues like generosity are essential components of self development (Nelson-Jones, 2004).
Early psychological framework on disease model lacked a way to enhance an individual’s wellness. Positive psychology focuses on strengths and virtues (Sheldon and King, 2001). Sheldon and King (2001) also note that by bringing out the good in individuals a better more complete understanding of who they are as a person can be attained.
Some researchers have argued that positive psychology overlaps with and humanistic psychology (Robbins, 2008). Robbins stated that overlap is restricted to the thematic context and theoretical presuppositions. Robbins (2008) remarked that positive psychology stands out in its approach to affirming humanistic principles by emphasizing happiness and optimal experience (Robbins, 2008)
Positive psychology interventions have shown how to increase individual’s well being (Sin & Lyumbomirsky, 2009). An analysis was conducted to assess the uses of positive psychology interventions. The analysis involved the use of positive psychology interventions on 4,226 subjects (Sin & Lyumbomirsky, 2009). The interventions included: mindfulness, positive writing, hope therapy, positive reminiscence, life review therapy, gratitude well being therapy, Fordyce’s happiness program, forgiveness, cultivating sacred moments, goal setting, self management, discussing beliefs, rehearsal of positive statements, and positive psychotherapy. The findings of the study showed that the psychological well being of individuals that received intervention improved significantly. The individuals receiving intervention also had a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. Sin and Lyumbomirsky (2009) showed that the individuals who were motivated an expected the intervention to make them happier actually benefited in contrast to their peers who were less motivated.
Generosity Motivating Factors
Generosity is characterized by a complicated collection of cognitions, and influences that is and expressions of super ego severity, characterizing countless forms of human psychopathology (McCullough, 2002). “In development, generosity is evoked by idealization, and a dynamic axis of, idealization-generosity promoting relational proximity i.e, between the child and its care takers, and eventually fosters separation and individuation” (Krandin, 2002).
Grant (2008) presents four types of motivating factors of generosity; these are intrinsic, extrinsic, prosocial, and image motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to and individual kind of motivation driven by personal interest or enjoyment in specified task and the task itself (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The authors in their article bringing forth the concept of external motivation referring to the idea that, the activity an individual partakes is done in order to attain separate outcomes.
Procosial motivation is reflected in the personality trait of and individual’s thoughtfulness (Grant, 2008). As shown by Otomo, Snyder and Stefan Stu¨rmer, (2005), the expression or feeling of empathy and interpersonal attraction can lead to volunteerism or generosity. Grant in his article argued that prosocial motivation is more temporary, and focuses on the objective of defending and promoting the welfare of others. Image motivation (also called signaling motivation) can be simplified as the concept that, individuals are motivated by how others view or regard them (Ariely, Bracha & Meier, 2007).
An early study conducted by Barnett, Laura and Jeffery (1979) indicated that, generosity can be cultivated within an individual. The study identified that the level of concern an individual has toward others plays a major role in molding generous acts. The study was conducted on 85 children with ages ranged between seven to twelve years. The researchers induced different moods on the children to alter their behavior in relation to generosity. The kids who were showed positive responses, ended up being far more generous than the children who were not shown positive responses (Barnett, Laura & Jeffery, 1979).
Generosity Consequences
Researchers have reported that individuals who engage in generous acts can benefit from generosity physiologically, psychologically and socially (Allen, Kupermic, Philliber & Herre, (1994), Brown , Neese, Vinokur and Smith (2003) , Field, Hernandez-Reif, Quintitio, Scanberg & Kuhn (1998), Lukes and Payne (1991), Roland, Dallman & Bjorntoro,(1998), Seligman & Park (2005), Wheeler, Gorey and Greenblat (1998), Wilson & Musick, (2004). The physiological benefits generosity has include; increased antibody production, heart health, decrease in pain, endorphin surge and decrease in mortality (Brown, Neese, Vinokur & Smith, 2003).
Generosity is believed to lower cortisol levels (Field et al, 1998). Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress and elevated cortisol levels are linked to stress and abdominal fat retention (Roland, Dallman & Bjorntoro, 1998). In a study where infants received massage therapy from elderly volunteers, ten individuals were instructed to give Swedish massages to infants. The age ranged of the individuals in the study were 63 to 84 years old (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Quintitio, Scanberg & Kuhn, 1998). This research aimed to test a hypothesis according to which giving someone a massage and promoting someone else’s wellbeing would be beneficial for the person, who does it (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Quintitio, Scanberg & Kuhn 1998,). This is also an act of generosity and this is why this study is relevant to this discussion. The findings of this research suggest that giving someone else a massage lowers cortisol and catecholamines (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Quintitio, Scanberg & Kuhn, 1998).
Another endocrine response associated with generosity is the release of endorphins (Luks, 1988). According to the study carried out by Allan Luks (1988) helpers maintain that their sensations are similar to those ones, experienced by people who do physical exercises. Furthermore, volunteers reported feeling less depressed, experienced fewer aches and pains (Luks, 1988). These individuals felt stronger and reported being more energetic (Luks, 1988). One should take it into consideration that the study, conducted by Alan Luks, is primarily based on the subjective self-assessment of the participants; however, these results can be viewed as an indirect proof of the positive effects of generosity.
Generous acts may improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of heart attach and increase antibody production. Sternberg (2001) reported how the immune and cardiovascular systems are negatively impacted by stress. Stress reeks havoc on the cardiovascular and immune system by continually engaging the flight or fight response. Ester Sternberg (2001) states that the emotions associated with altruistic or generous acts allow the body to regain balance by increasing antibody production and lowering blood pressure through vasodilatation.
Generosity is associated with decreasing the severity of pain and the ultimate physiological benefit is a decreased mortality rate. A study (Brown, Neese, Vinokur & Smith, 2003) was conducted to look at the effects of giving and receiving social support among 423 couples. They found that individuals that gave social support to others had a lower mortality rate compared to those who only received social supports.
Seligman & Park (2005) has show that generous individuals report having happier lives. It is also true that prosocial behavior like generosity facilitates people to work in group, which in turn provides individuals with long term benefits of psychological well being (Seligman & Park, 2005). Group cohesion is an important factor in society. Seligman and Park’s research show how generous acts can increase group cohesion.
Generosity has also been attributed to psychological benefits like increased life satisfaction, quality of life, well being and decreasing depressive symptoms. Prosocial behavior is associated with benefiting life satisfaction. Hunter and Lin (1980) found that individuals who volunteered expressed higher levels of life satisfaction. Likewise, Wheeler, Gorey and Greenblat (1998) examined the beneficial effects of volunteering and found that generosity is linked to increasing quality of life. The analysis of 37 studies examined the benefits of volunteering in the elderly population and the analysis revealed that 85% of the volunteers across the 37 studies enjoyed a better quality of life than non volunteers.
Generosity allows individuals to form stronger connections with the community. Volunteering allows individuals to go beyond their immediate life situation. The opportunity to connect to a larger community allows the individual to increase their civic identity (Musick, Wilson & Bynum, 2000).
Volunteering or generous acts increase social connection by discouraging antisocial behavior among younger people (Allen, Kupermic, Philliber & Herre, 1994). Utilizing existing data from Adolescent Life Transitions Survey, the study found that volunteering or prosocial behavior acted as a factor for decreasing antisocial behavior. Pro social behavior like volunteering or generous acts are believed to foster interpersonal trust, toleration and empathy for others, and respect for the common good (Wilson & Musick, 2004). Wilson and Musick state that volunteering or generous acts reduce engagement in social pathological behavior such as vandalism. Volunteering youths were less likely to prey on other people and engage in self destructive behavior.
Volunteering or generous acts also contributes to occupational achievement. Volunteering is taken as a good opportunity for acquiring a good job and also provides a chance to build self confidence. Granovetter noted that for those not currently working, volunteering can be a stepping stone to paid employment (1973). One pathway from volunteering to occupational achievement is through education. The grade point averages were higher among participants of the service learning projects compared to those who did not participate. In addition to enabling the acquisition of educational records, volunteering also opens up job opportunities It is easier to get a satisfying job if one utilizes social ties developed while offering volunteer services, while individuals who implemented strong ties like relatives were less successful than volunteers (Granovetter, 1973).
Generosity as a learned virtue
Generosity as a virtue bears some distinct characteristics; it’s a learned virtue that depends on both action and attitude, it is a basic moral and personal orientation to life, it intends to give things that promote human well-being, its practice makes one achieve long-term good. Aristotle once observed that generosity is usually proportional to one’s resources (LaFollete, 2002). Generosity is dependent on magnificence that ensures that the community as a whole benefits from the virtue. A generous person gives the right thing in correct amounts to the right persons and at the appropriate time. Generosity is regarded as a vital virtue in the religious context (Claire & Manuel, 2001). Muslims are expected to give alms to the poor. This forms one of the basic pillars of the Islam faith and even children grow up knowing that offering a helping hand to the less fortune is important. Christian teachings put a lot of emphasis on the virtue of generosity.
According to Claire and Manuel, several acts of generosity serve as lessons for those who do not truly embrace the virtue (2001). A study of people donating blood at a public hospital raised a few questions. What motivated the blood donors? Why did others who were in their company refuse to donate their blood yet they were healthy? The blood recipients were total strangers and yet the donors did not bother to undergo this sacrificial exercise. It is obvious that external factors may have contributed but internal factors played the greatest part in the execution of the act. According to Lightman (1982), generosity like other virtues is acquired by acting. However, the motivation behind exercising generosity changes with time. The moral obligation at first seems to be an external force but as time passes by the obligation becomes internal. Repeated exercise of generosity is of great importance in the cultivation of the virtue (Smith, 2009).
Even though pro-social behavior can be a personality trait, studies have shown that it is possible to teach children the value of generosity (Smith, 2009). The study illustrates that children can develop pro-social behaviors through modeling. Social learning theory states that children’s moral judgments are easily modified, especially by using an adult model (Lightman, 1982). Social learning theory and motivation are essential ideas as it relates to generous behavior. Generosity is a virtue that can be cultivated through biological or psychological means.
The manifestation of the virtue of generosity is usually different in children. Most of them exercise the virtue for fear and also to please their seniors. As discussed, the more the virtue is exercised the more intrinsic it becomes and hence can be acquired. Children are usually preoccupied with play and if parents are not keen, some virtues may be unlearned by the children. According to Smith (2009), the inculcation of generosity should start at a tender age when the child is able to distinguish between what belongs to the individual and what belongs to another person. Some children freely give what they have whereas some will even fight to protect whatever is in their possession. Parents should learn from these embarrassing situations and ensure that their children change for the better.
Parents should teach their children the importance of sharing whatever they have with others alongside other virtues. A child will grow to be generous and will not require any force to exercise acts of generosity. Failure to instill this virtue in early ages may be detrimental to both the parents and the children. Instilling this virtue in teenagers is not as easy as most people would imagine. Smith observed that the manifestation of generosity gradually changes from an external force to a more internal factor (2009). Training and out-reach programs serve as eye openers to the youth in realizing their social responsibilities. They are also helped to change their attitudes towards the importance of charity in the inculcation of the virtue of generosity.
Generosity is independent of one’s wealth. Every person can be generous because an individual can offer whatever he ore she has for the good of another. The inculcation of the virtue at an early age helps at ensuring that a morally responsible generation is nurtured. It can be concluded, therefore, that generosity as a virtue can be learnt.
This paper is designed to investigate the idea that generosity exercises can improve psychological well-being. Specifically, this study purposed that there will be a statistically significant difference between pre and post test scores in participants that complete exercises. The scale that will be used includes: psychological well-being, quality of life inventory, satisfaction with life, and state-trait-cheerfulness inventory.
Participants will be 200 men and women over the age of 18. Of the 200 individuals, 100 will be college students at a Southeastern University and 100 from a mental health clinic with location through out Eastern North Carolina. A researcher will enlist participants from the 5 locations in North Carolina, and students at the Southeastern University. All participation will be voluntary.
The researcher will obtain written approval from the clinic’s President and the Southeastern University’s Internal review board prior to the start of data collection. The researcher will be assigned certain days to enlist participants from the mental health clinic. All participants will be briefed and informed consent and complete forms prior to beginning the study. The researcher will provide a journal exercise packet and survey tool to all participants. The participants must complete all 5 weeks to ensure accurate data. Once the participants complete the 5 week exercise they will be debriefed.
Demographic information
The demographic data collected from the participants will include age, gender, income, mental health diagnosis (if applicable), education level, and race.
Psychological Well-being scale (Ryff, 1995)
The psychological well-being scale consists of 6 dimensions which include autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. The 54 question form will be utilized due to the fact that the short form is statistically unreliable. (Seifert, 2005)
Quality of Life Inventory (QOLI; Frisch, 1992)
The Quality of Life inventory assesses an individual’s quality of life through self report based on the importance they place on each of 16 life domains along with their current satisfaction with each domain. The life domains utilize a three-point scale while satisfaction implements a six-point rating scale. The Quality of Life Inventory contains 32 items.
Satisfaction with Life (Diener, 1991)
The satisfaction life scale was developed to assess satisfaction of people’s lives as a whole. The satisfaction with life scale is comprised of five items and is very brief. It has no provision for assessing life satisfaction as in line with specific areas of life.
State-Trait-Cheerfulness Inventory (Ruch, Kohler & Thriel, 1996)
The State-Trait-Cheerfulness Inventory measures cheerfulness, seriousness, and bad mood as states and traits. There are 20 items that address trait and 10 items, that utilize a four point answer format which included strongly disagree to strongly agree.
Data Analysis
Statistical Package for the Social Sciences program will be used to analyze the data. Descriptive statistics will be generated for each variable. The dependent variable for this study is psychological well-being. The independent variable is the generosity exercise.
The purpose of this directed study is to see if completing generosity exercises can change psychological well-being. Presently there is not any existing research that proposes this idea. Existing generosity studies focus on monetary giving. Volunteering, a similar prosocial behavior has proven to alter well-being scores.
The perceived limitation to this study would be high due to the five weeks required of each participant. It is likely that some of the original 200 participants will not complete the entire exercise. The small sample of 200 will probably suffer from an attrition rate, decreasing an already small sample size.
The field of positive psychology relies on the on subjective levels. The ideas of well-being, like life satisfaction and quality of life are based on self report. Although there are valid instruments that measure these constructs, some argue that these constructs are based on an individual’s perception of self. The perception of self is often called into question when studies of this nature are completed.
This study is unique because there are no existing studies that examine this phenomenon. The lack of previous implementation will leave room for several extraneous variables that may alter the results. If this proposed study had a prior study to use as a template it could aid in identifying these variables.

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