The Rich Life Blog

Why Some People Can’t Give

Posted by James Lenhoff

November 30, 2017

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been discussing the rewards of generosity. Last time, I shared the story of my client who got a late start on generosity, only to realize that giving to causes she believed in provided a joy she had not tapped into before.

She was ninety.

Having a front row seat for this dear client’s revelation counts as one of the highlights of my career. Nonetheless, the question that lingers is this:  Why don’t more people experience the joy of generosity? I sincerely believe that we are wired to share when we see the opportunity. Nonetheless I’ve noticed several circuit breakers that control the natural flow of generosity in our lives. If something trips these breakers, we lose our generosity and, along with it, our joy.

Breaker One:  Fortunate or Self-made

The first circuit breaker flips between fortunate and self-made. This breaker has nothing to do with possessions or positions. In fact, I see clients in very similar situations:  The same amount of money saved, the same size of house, the same corner office, and the same nice car. Somehow, these people view their position from opposite perspectives.

I can talk to one and she will talk about how fortunate she is, how many lucky breaks she has had along the way, and how blessed she is to have the natural talents and abilities that she possesses. I talk to the second client and she will talk about how she is a self-made woman, and how she has earned and deserves everything she has achieved in life.  She is unable to be generous because she feels like nobody helped her out, so why should she help others?  People just need to figure things out for themselves, like she did.

Here is what I always find. The person who believes they have been fortunate is always much more generous and much happier with life than the person who thinks they did it all by themselves. Don’t get me wrong:  The people who feel fortunate know they are smart and talented and that they have worked hard to get where they are in life. But they also know that there are a lot of other people who are just as smart and talented who have worked just as hard, but didn’t have the same breaks or opportunities.

“I put in the work,” I will often hear them say, “but I’ve got to be honest. I was also in the right place at the right time.”

Breaker Two:  Grateful or Entitled

Over the past several years, I have spent time with people from disparate points on the economic continuum. In developing nations like Haiti, I have enjoyed the warm hospitality of people living in stark poverty. In our country,  I have worked with people who are extremely rich. What I have witnessed is a paradox.

I have met people who have much more money and possessions than most, who believe that life owes them much more. These people are still grumbling for a future when they finally get the rest of the wealth that they deserve. In the meantime, they simply cannot allow themselves to be generous because they deserve to keep what they have on their way to more.

In contrast, our world is full of women and men who have far less resources than you and I that are grateful for the life they have received. These people share without hesitation and they experience life with an incongruous joy. Why? Because their sense of gratitude brightens their perspective, in the same way that a sense of entitlement casts a shadow over everything. In other words, I have seen absolutely no correlation between how much you have and how happy you are, but I have seen a very strong correlation between how grateful you are for what you have and how happy you are.

Breaker Three:  Abundance or Scarcity

Most introductions to economics start with the idea that resources are scarce. The image I get is of a thinly sliced pie that everyone is fighting over to claim their piece. This scarcity mindset is one of the most difficult to shake when it comes to generosity. If you believe there are not enough resources to go around, and that we are all in competition for those resources, it feels dangerous to give anything away. How can we share when we believe we don’t have enough?

The abundance mindset views the pie as something that multiplies. Those with an abundance mentality have a sense that they are thriving, and that they have more than enough.  Giving comes naturally when you feel that you have a surplus.

You might assume that the more someone has, the more they are likely to have an abundance mentality. But that’s not the case. How much you have does not create an abundance mentality or a scarcity mentality, but which outlook you have does impact how much you are enjoying what you have, and how comfortable you are with giving some away.

If we find ourselves struggling to be generous, I don’t think it’s helpful to label ourselves as selfish Scrooges or grumpy holiday curmudgeons. We only need to acknowledge that one of these circuit breakers has tripped and then work to flick it back on. How? Next time, we’ll talk about two excellent ways to power our generosity.

If you are benefiting from the ideas we cover in this blog, check out my book that is now available on Amazon. It’s called Living a Rich Life:  The No Regrets Guide to Building and Spending Wealth. Click here to order it today.


James Lenhoff is the president of Wealthquest, a Cincinnati-based financial planning and wealth management firm that offers a full range of financial services under one roof, for one simple fee.


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