Commentary | A theologian and a financial planner walk into a bar: Two approaches to the joy of generosity

publication date: May 19, 2019
 | 
author/source: Warren MacKenzie and Lori Guenther Reesor

Money, money, money. More money is better than less money, except when it isn’t. Sometimes the best use of money is giving it away. Both Warren MacKenzie and Lori Guenther Reesor believe that generosity improves peoples’ lives, a bold claim. To begin with, let’s ask them to define generosity.

What is generosity?

Warren – Generosity is voluntary sharing and giving (as opposed to sharing with CRA). But it’s a mistake to think of generous people as being kinder than the average person. The reality is that generous people share and give simply because they believe that this way of using their money will give them the greatest happiness.

Lori – Generosity means sharing everything you’ve been given. It’s very tempting to think “I’ve earned it, I deserve it” but our health, talents, abilities, opportunities, families, our very life and breath – all gifts. Generosity begins with gratitude. Gratitude is the gateway drug to generosity.

What makes generosity joyful?

Warren – Humans are hard wired to get happiness from helping other people. There’s a great Chinese saying that goes like this. “If you want to be happy for an hour – take a nap, if you want to be happy for a day – go fishing, if you want to be happy for a month – get married, if you want to be happy for a year – inherit a fortune, and if you want to be happy for a lifetime – help other people”.

It is also now scientifically proven that helping other people causes the release of the hormone Oxytocin in our brain. This is the ‘feel good’ hormone that contributes to what is sometimes called the ‘Helper’s High’. Studies show that generous people who volunteer are happier, live longer, have lower blood pressure, and feel a sense of purpose in their lives.

Lori – God loves a hilarious giver. That’s my favourite translation of a verse in the New Testament. There’s joy in helping others, in ordering the world, in working together with other people. A joyful cause for me right now is a peace and social justice theatre company. My husband and I were invited to a performance by inmates at Grand River Institute – a women’s prison in Kitchener. Two boring suburban white collar people helped make that show happen. That’s hilarious. It’s a small thing in an unjust world, but it points towards hope.

How can people afford to be generous?

Warren – A better question might be - how can people not afford to be generous. There is a certain amount of happiness that comes from every ‘generous’ act. And the level of happiness is related to the sacrifice involved. A hungry person who shares his food with a stranger may get greater happiness from this act of generosity than the happiness a multi- millionaire would get by donating a $100,000 dollars to a new hospital.

Lori – Giving makes us generous, you don’t need to have a generous heart to get started – that will come. I’ve met people who give the difference between a Starbucks and a Tim Horton’s weekly coffee habit and people who give hundreds of dollars every week. If at all possible, I encourage people to choose a cause they like, give an amount they can afford and give regularly. See what happens.

Giving is a spiritual discipline like prayer, something that needs regular practice to shape us. Not everyone can be generous in the same way but everyone can be generous in some way. People are generous with time, talents and energy. In the economics of generosity, you receive more than you give. I don’t mean that generosity makes you rich. I mean that generosity makes our hearts grow bigger. What gives you hope? Warren – I believe that by working together Lori and I can get our message out to a few thousand people. If these people discover the joy of giving they’ll be able to share this positive experience with friends and family and thereby enjoy happier lives. Imagine a farmer who spends time, money and energy in planting, cultivating, a field of tomato plants. But he has no plan to harvest his crop so in the fall the tomatoes rot in the field and there is a cost to clean up the mess. That’s a waste! It’s a similar waste when someone dies leaving a large estate, heirs hire lawyers and the family is torn apart.

Lori - I find hope in meeting people who are passionate about encouraging generosity. I’m a big fan of Abundance Canada – they sponsored my DMin research and there are many other people and organizations dedicated to encouraging generosity. I’m encouraged by people like Warren who is saying – give some money away even when that reduces the fees he earns for managing money.

Any final encouragements?

Warren - Giving until it hurts might be the best way to experience the joy of generosity. But as the bare minimum we should all at least give away any surplus capital. This is the capital that is completely unnecessary to achieve our goals. Many senior citizens do have surplus capital. Unfortunately they fail to use these funds wisely because they don’t have an ‘Essential Capital Surplus Capital’ financial plan to verify the amount of their capital that is surplus. Not knowing what is surplus they hang on to more than they need and lose the opportunity for increased happiness.

One mistake that holds people back from experiencing the joy of generosity is the belief that a large investment portfolio will somehow provide security against all unknown risks. The truth is that to be safe and secure and comfortable in your old age it’s more important to have friends and family and a community that cares about you than to have a large investment portfolio. Lau Tzu says, “He who knows he has enough is rich.”

Another mistake is thinking that leaving a larger estate will make our heirs happier. We get our happiness from friends and family, accomplishments and living a purposeful life. To do this we need to learn to overcome challenges and to solve problems. To the extent that a large inheritance obviates the need to learn to overcome challenges – the inheritance may cause as much grief as happiness.

Lori - Don’t be afraid. When we’re afraid, we clench our fists and hold on tight. And then we miss out on the joy of sharing, of creating a more hopeful world. I think gratitude helps us loosen our grip. I’ve had the privilege of talking to many generous people. Ordinary folks, not wealthy, just generous. One donor in a focus group told me “whatever I have given away, I have never ever missed it.” People nodded. We can always afford to be generous.

Warren MacKenzie is an accountant, financial planner and investment advisor who is sometimes the expert for the Financial Facelift column in the Globe and Mail. He has decades of experience helping people manage their money. Warren is Head of Financial Planning at Optimize Wealth Management. He specializes in helping people achieve their goals by managing (and using) their capital wisely. You can reach him at warren.mackenzie@optimizewealth.ca

Lori Guenther Reesor is an expert in Christian giving and did her Doctor of Ministry research into why Canadian Christians give money to church and charity. She studied theology and statistics, both of which inform her consulting work. Lori Guenther Reesor blogs on her website www.lgreesor.com. She is a writer, speaker and consultant: “Joyful fundraising for churches and charities” is her tagline. 

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