From tribesmen to billionaire philanthropists, the social value of generosity is already well known. But new research suggests it also matters much more intimately than we imagined, even down to our most personal relationships.
Researchers from the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project in the US recently studied the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women. Generosity was defined as "the virtue of giving good things to one's spouse freely and abundantly"-like simply making them coffee or tea in the morning-and researchers quizzed men and women on how often they behaved generously toward their partners. How often did they express affection? How willing were they to forgive?
While sexual intimacy, commitment and communication are important, the focus on generosity adds a new dimension to our understanding of marital success. Though this conclusion may seem fairly self-evident, it's not always easy to be generous to a romantic partner. The noted marriage researcher John Gottman has found that successful couples say or do at least five positive things for each negative interaction with their partner-not an easy feat.
"In marriage we are expected to do our fair share when it comes to housework, child care and being faithful, but generosity is going above and beyond the ordinary expectations with small acts of service and making an extra effort to be affectionate," explains the University of Virginia's W. Bradford Wilcox. "Living that spirit of generosity fosters a virtuous cycle that makes both spouses happier in the marriage."
Social scientists are now wondering if this virtuous cycle extends to children too. In a study of 3-year-old twins, Israeli researchers have identified a genetic predisposition toward generosity that may be further influenced by a parent's behaviour. Preliminary findings suggest that children with more-engaged parents are more likely to be generous toward others, which may bode well for their future relationships - and their parents' too.