We’ve always known that being generous feels good, but now there’s scientific proof. New research published this year by the American Psychological Association says “the warm glow” and “emotional benefits” that result from spending money on someone else rather than for personal benefit appear to be a universal response among people in rich and poor nations. The international survey comprised more than 234,000 individuals.
The researchers conclude that such generosity has served our species as a “mechanism” that may have carried “long-term benefits for survival over human evolutionary history.” While that may be true, the APA report doesn’t answer the Big Question: Why do people continue on behaving with a lack of generosity even when doing so feels “bad” or, at least, not so good? To answer that, we have to look to depth psychology.
People who are lacking in generosity are likely to be entangled to some degree in emotional conflict. That conflict produces negative emotions that shut down the impulse to be generous. What is the nature of this inner conflict? When we’re unable to be generous, we’re likely entangled in conflicts having to do with feeling deprived. Many of us tend to know ourselves to a significant degree through the feeling that something important or even essential is missing in our life. As a result, we can be burdened with painful impressions of deprivation or refusal. Often we’re not aware of how much we’re being influenced by these negative emotions. If we were to find words to express this emptiness and negativity, we might say something to this effect: The suffering in my life, even my sense of self, can be measured through the chronic dissatisfaction of what I don’t have and what I may never possess. If I don’t acquire these possessions, or fill myself with the recognition and validation of others, I am ultimately worthless and my life is a failure.
When some people think about giving or being generous, they become emotionally preoccupied with the sense that they’ll now have less for themselves. This sense of deprivation blocks the impulse to be generous, leaving us to experience a sense of emptiness along with some degree of suffering.
This problem could be called “the Deprivation Conflict.” At a conscious level, we want to feel gratified and fulfilled, yet at an unconscious level we haven’t resolved an expectation, dating back into early childhood, dealing with impressions of being refused and deprived. Consequently, we experience a chronic sense of not getting and a feeling of missing out on life’s benefits and goodies. We’re often not aware of possessing this poverty mentality, and we believe that “wanting to get” is a worthy pursuit and that our desire or instinct to accumulate goods or wealth is commendable. On the surface of awareness we take our emotional life for granted, providing it’s not excruciatingly painful, and hence we fail to detect the underlying pangs of unfulfilled desire.
This underlying preoccupation with what’s missing in our life is strong enough that it can be termed “an emotional attachment” or “an emotional addiction.” The feeling has lingered in our psyche from the oral stage of childhood. Babies have a highly subjective sense of reality, and they can become frustrated when their desires for oral gratification aren’t instantly accommodated. The subsequent feeling of being refused or deprived lingers in our psyche, and as adults we can experience our world through these unresolved emotions. This hodgepodge of unconscious negativity doesn’t support the spirit of generosity.
Our ego hates to acknowledge that we could still be clinging to expectations of deprivation or refusal, and so we produce an unconscious defense which claims, “I’m not looking to feel refused or deprived. I want to get. My desires (and my credit-card debt) prove how much I want to get.” Hence, greed, envy, and fear of loss serve as unconscious defenses (just as they’re also painful symptoms) of the underlying conflict.
Even when people have all they need, they can still accentuate in everyday ways the feelings of being deprived. Though they have money, some people stare into empty cupboards or an empty refrigerator bemoaning their circumstances. Compulsive spending and shopping are self-defeating activities that are fueled by “the Deprivation Conflict.” Our defense system’s instinct to “prove” we want to get (to cover up our unresolved emotional attachment to feeling deprived or refused) is so powerful that many of us unwittingly enslave ourselves in the form of debt obligations. When debt-ridden, we heighten the sense of feeling deprived while producing the self-sabotage that accompanies inner conflict. The spirit of generosity wanes under these psychological impediments.
Acting out these unconscious attachments also produces another form of self-sabotage. Modern consumerism is, in part, a product of our instinct to cope with inner emptiness. In rampant consumerism, we’ve created a monster with a huge appetite for the planet’s natural resources. It’s depleting and polluting the planet, impoverishing us and future generations. Consumerism creates the illusion that we’re rich. Yet the goodies of the marketplace are trinkets compared to the value of the Earth and the value of our essential self. Who was fooled the most, the Native Americans who sold Manhattan to the Dutch for strings of beads, or you and me who are selling the Earth to its defilers for odd shapes of plastic, vinyl, and treated wood?
Another negative emotion is involved with the lack of generosity. Many people, in identifying with their ego, have a powerful desire to feel superior to others. For them, it’s either feel superior or feel inferior. They don’t like seeing people raised up from poverty because they no longer can easily feel superior to them. Hence, they feel no need to be generous. In fact, the impulse is to refuse to be generous. When they do give money, it can be for pet causes that promote their own shallow values or for the purpose of ego gratification (looking good in their own eyes and in the eyes of others). Such pseudo-generosity is less pleasurable than heart-felt generosity.
We need to be smarter about the underlying psychological dynamics that drive our behaviors and emotions. When we comprehend, for instance, our emotional attachment to feeling deprived, our intelligence can now resolve the inner conflict (the desperate desire to get versus the unconscious determination to feel deprived and refused).
When this conflict occupies our inner space, we cannot feel or know ourself with any intimacy. Enthralled by materialism, our essential being and imperishable value fade into insignificance. We can’t cherish nature and absorb its magnificence because our consciousness has not yet struck the gold in our own nature. We hesitate to be generous because our emptiness feels even more painfully depleted when we think about giving to others.