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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Why Generosity is a Psychoexemplary


In his commencement speech at Brandeis, and as noted in our recent column on statesmanship, the filmmaker Ken Burns emphasized that not just generosity, but generosity squared, was needed for leadership. From a mental health standpoint, it is difficult to argue against a leader who embraces generosity for all served.


Generosity can be defined as being giving to others, perhaps more than is practically necessary. The paradox is that acting to benefit others increases the givers’ well-being at the same time. Its physical and mental benefits are multiple. Moreover, it often ripples out in a string of generality.

Studies of infants and young children indicate that generosity has its basis in our human nature, although it can be supported or inhibited by nurture. Generosity of parents to their children, along with the avoidance of too much parental narcissistic displacement of their psychological needs onto their children, is essential for the individualized development of the child. Selfishness and fear of loss often block generosity. Some individuals have trouble accepting others’ generosity.

While psychiatry can be viewed as just a job, when it is also inspired by generosity, it is much more—a calling and moral imperative. When it is felt to just be a job, frustration usually ensures because it is such a challenging field in our grappling with the depths of human nature and our own countertransference potential intrusions.

We are now beginning to learn the accompanying brain changes with generosity.1 The brain’s ventral striatum is linked to altruism, and the experience of receiving generosity decreases brain activity in the amygdala, where fight-or-flight responses emerge and can become overreactive with undue trauma.

A certain amount of above average narcissism seems necessary to want to become a leader, so that narcissism and generosity can become intertwined. The challenge in politics or parenting is to be a leader for all, not just for one’s political party or for authoritative control, for that differentiation often produces envy and opposition over time. In the polarizing time in our country and the world, can we find the unifying leaders that benefit all?

Note: This article originally appeared on Psychiatric Times

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