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These days, with all the anger, conflict and misery reported in the news, shown on television, film and depicted in novels and video games, it’s easy to fall into a dystopian world view.

Worse, acting on those negative perceptions and depictions fuels more despair and division, breaking down communities and causing deep unhappiness — a concern that the Vancouver Foundation has raised.

But more than half the people in the world, including a majority of Canadians, are listening to their better angels, according to a Gallup’s annual Most Generous Country Index released last week.

It estimates that 4.6 billion people did acts of kindness last year, including donating money, volunteering and offering help to strangers. It surveyed 1,000 adults in each of 146 countries.

In a world where it we seem increasingly in fear of strangers, 43 per cent of people helped someone they didn’t know in the previous month. And that’s only the average.

In Libya, 83 per cent of survey respondents said they’d helped someone. Iraq was a close second, followed by Kuwait, Liberia and Sierra Leone all at 80 per cent. The worst places to be alone and helpless? Cambodia, Laos and Japan where fewer than a quarter had helped a stranger.

Nearly one billion people were volunteers last year, with Indonesians the most willing to donate time to charitable causes. Indonesia tops Gallup’s list of the most generous countries.

Unsurprisingly, generosity is at its lowest in war-weary, famine-ridden Yemen. Desperation doesn’t lend itself to charity or kindness, but clearly wealth doesn’t necessarily either.

Nowhere do as many people make financial donations as in Myanmar, which ranks 128th in the world when it comes to wealth and among the top 10 when it comes to generosity. Gallup attributes it to strong Buddhist traditions.

But generous to whom is good question. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country in the past two years after what the United Nations has described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by Myanmar’s military.

Canada’s generosity score puts it in the top 10 along with Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Ireland, Britain, Singapore, Bahrain, Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Haiti and others (There were several tie scores).

What’s concerning, however, is that Canadians are less generous now than they were 30 years ago, according to a 2018 report by the Rideau Hall Foundation.

While the total value of donations increased 150 per cent between 1985 and 2014 to $14.3 billion, the number of donors has fallen steadily in the past 25 years.

The foundation suggests that with fewer Canadians now linked to religious institutions, people have trouble finding a cause that they want to support. But it also found that a growing number of Canadians doubt their money will be used efficiently.

Another study done in 2017 by the Angus Reid Foundation and the Charitable Impact Foundation speaks to the disconnect. It found that 45 per cent of Canadians donate less than $250 a year to charity. Given that many Canadians struggle to pay for housing and food, that’s perhaps not so surprising.

What is surprising is that six in 10 don’t donate because they’re deeply skeptical that charities do what they promise with the money. Three-quarters don’t think charities should exist. They believe it’s up to governments to make the world a better place, not individuals and charities.

Of those non-givers and low donors, nearly a quarter earn more than $100,000 a year.

What hasn’t changed are the reasons Canadians give: compassion, belief in a particular cause, a desire to contribute to the community.

Canada has more than 170,000 charitable and non-profit organizations that, among other things, feed and house the poor, provide shelter to victims of violence, provoke curiosity at museums and galleries, inspire creativity, challenge our minds and feed our souls at theatres and concert halls.

Without donors — and absent an overwhelming movement of citizens willing to pay much higher taxes to make up the difference — millions of Canadians will lose out on all of that.

But there’s something else at stake. Far from being the ultimate measure, wealth doesn’t correlate to a country’s well being.

For years, UBC economist John Helliwell, co-author of the World Happiness Report, and other researchers have provided evidence that generosity is one of the core variables used to assess the well-being of individuals and countries.

They’ve proven the biblical saying that it’s better to give than to receive. Regardless of which country where they’ve tested that hypothesis, the people who were given money to give away were happier than the people who were given money and told to spend it.

Giving one’s time strengthens social connections, another predictor of happiness. By being involved, people have more trust in institutions. With personal freedom (another core happiness indicator), people can choose who and how they can help.

For those raised in the Christian tradition, this is the season of giving. For those who aren’t, it’s the time of year when the clock is ticking down to make tax-deductible donations.

In these dark days with so many people in need both in our own community and beyond, what better time to be generous not only to family and friends, but by extending help to strangers.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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