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The Selfish Reason You Should Be Extremely Generous

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A few weeks ago, I was passing through Phoenix airport. I'd just picked up lunch and was looking for a place to eat it. I stumbled upon a huge seating area attached to a fast food restaurant. With the exception of a man in a suit at one table, the place was empty. I figured no one would care if I sat down and scarfed my salad.

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Almost immediately, a surly restaurant employee appeared and abruptly announced that if I hadn't bought anything, I couldn't sit there. I thought she was joking. But when I laughed, she just glared at me. Behind her was a sign that read, Welcome to Phoenix: The friendliest airport in !

Without warning, I became irrationally angry. "I can see that you've got a lot of patrons trying to find a table," I snarled, "Are you going to call security if I don't leave?" Her response was more glaring, and then came the nuclear option: "I'm going to get my manager!" As she marched off, I started shoveling the salad into my mouth, vowing that I wasn't going to leave unless they carried me out. It was not one of my finer moments.

All of a sudden, someone plopped a bottle of water on my table. I looked up to find the man in a suit from the other table handing me a receipt. He grinned and declared, "You just bought a bottle of water! Now, they can't kick you out. Enjoy your lunch!" Before I could register what had happened, he was gone.

I felt equal parts inspired (by Suit Man's behavior) and embarrassed (by mine). I'd chosen to argue when I didn't have to; he'd chosen to give when he didn't have to.

Wow, what a guy! I thought, as I imagined Suit Man's Life of . His family probably treasured him. His coworkers probably adored him. And his was almost certainly lower than mine.

Indeed, a Life of Generosity has many scientifically supported benefits. Here are a few especially interesting examples of how people like Suit Man lead better lives:*

Why Are We So Stingy?

Despite generosity's huge payoffs (and the fact that humans are wired to be this way), we can be surprisingly stingy. The vast majority of Americans -- 76 percent! -- do not volunteer at all. Only 10 percent donate blood. And 30 percent report not helping their friends or neighbors [Face palm].

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When was the last time you could have helped someone, but didn't? Perhaps you rushed past a person begging for money on the street. Or a coworker sought your help, but you politely declined because you had too much going on. Or maybe a stranger asked you for a favor and you refused. We invent so many reasons to justify our selfishness and cynicism. But when you weigh them against the benefits of generosity, generosity almost always wins.

As I pondered Suit Man's behavior, I realized that I was dangerously close to a life of subtle selfishness. Even though I'd do anything to help the people I care about, I am less generous when I don't have to be. And that day I had a long list of reasons for this benign neglect: I was tired, I was overcommitted, I was in a bad mood, etc. If the roles had been reversed, and Suit Man had needed my help, I'm not sure I'd have done the same.

How did I get here? I wondered. There was a time when I went out of my way to help others, even when I didn't have to. When I worked at Starbucks in college, we had our fair share of customers who wanted to yell at us because they were having a bad day. One of my favorite things to do was to hand them their coffee, flash a huge smile and say, "This one's on me!" They would always look shocked, then apologize and thank me for making their day better. And I, of course, felt fantastic!

I wanted to be that person again.

Strengthening Our Generosity Muscles

We live in a tough world—the demands placed upon us (and those we place on ourselves) can feel all-consuming. It can be too easy to deny help when it's difficult, or when we don't have to. But the research on generosity is clear: We don't see benefits unless we make generosity a lifelong habit.

In an illuminating TED talk, entrepreneur Sasha Dichter describes an experiment where he said "yes" to everything for one month (I believe this was also the premise of a mediocre Jim Carrey movie). The reason was that Dichter realized he'd been saying no too often and wanted to create a "new habit and a new reflex." Just days into his experiment, he started feeling like a generous person again.

So, inspired by Suit Man and Sasha Dichter, here is my solemn vow: Starting right now, I'm adding one generous deed every day—something I don't have to do, but want to do.

And here's my challenge to you: Don't just give occasionally, or when it's easy, or when you're in a good mood. Give more than you have to, more often than you have to. As professor Dr. Barbara Fredrickson points out, generosity "create[s] chains of events that. . . trigger upward spirals that transform communities." In other words, give to others, and change the world. And who doesn't want to be a part of that?

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*If you're interested in learning more about the benefits of generosity, I enthusiastically recommend my colleague Adam Grant's book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Grant is not only a brilliant thinker, he truly lives his principles and is one of my personal heroes.

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