Want to fix the economy?
Next time you buy coffee, purchase a cup for the person behind you. Or as you grind your way through the morning commute, pick up the tollbooth charge for the driver behind you, draped over his steering wheel and ranting at the long delay.
You've heard that famous Gandhian quote about being the change, well these are good measures to start with, packing more punch than you might imagine.
This approach to life starts with the following premise: What exactly did I (or you) do to deserve to be alive? If you can process that question and come out thinking it was a gift that you can't ever pay back, then beginning a life of greater giving is the only logical and remotely reciprocal way to go. If the most valuable thing you have isn't anything you earned, why be stingy with all the lesser stuff. You can start that practice of greater generosity with greater gratitude. And where better to start than with your mother, but don't stop there. Family, friends and the final frontier, strangers, are all worthy subjects.
Let's review what ails us. Our financial system nearly collapsed a few years ago. We propped it back up with what was left of our communal resources, and a little scotch tape here and there to correct the systems shortcomings. And now we find ourselves with a recovery so anemic only the wealthy can feel it. There has to be a better way.
Barter is a good way to survive a lousy economy. I can fix toilets; you can clean carburetors. Care to dance?
Learning to function in something like a "gift economy" is far more subversive, though, and worth thinking about.
A couple of years ago, in the teeth of the near economic collapse, the Steamin' Bean in Blue Springs, Missouri got caught up in the gift economy. A woman picking up coffee through the drive-through window decided to buy another cup, anonymously, for the person in the car behind her. The chain went on for close to 1,000 customers. That happened because of the viral affect of generosity.
As Steamin' Bean owner Garin Bledsoe explained in a UPI.com report on July 15, 2009: "It's hard times, but people are wanting to be part of something, knowing their 5 cents, their dollar, goes to a greater good."
The literature about the gift economy is rich. Remember those anthropology classes about the potlatch? Primitive societies far and wide used "gifts" as a means of creating cohesion and connection, all the better to survive the hardships of living off the land and the threat of other less-than-friendly tribes. This practice, in various forms, was quite widespread and predates out modern invention of currency. As history goes, this era of capital, the stuff we carry in our wallets and pocket books, is a blindingly new invention. How's it working out for you? Bet you're like the vast majority of the world. No matter how much you have, there's never enough.
Here's something to think about. Were these pre-modern habits of "gifting" purely survival techniques? Modern man may be less inclined to this sort of basic gifting, sharing and reciprocity. But we're good at studying things and the research keeps coming in that giving feels good. Really good.
What exactly happens when you buy that cup of coffee for the person behind you?
You get some good stuff happening in your body. In the brain actually, according to a number of recent medical studies that have identified a neural kick from being generous. Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good, summarizes his own work as well as other recent research in this field in this article in Greater Good magazine.
But really, do we need science to tell us this? Raise your hand if the last time you did something nice for someone -- something not out of habit, but a truly spontaneous act of generosity with no expected payoff -- you felt better than good. You actually felt sort of changed, like some kind of shift from a scarcity mentality to a more abundant sense of yourself and life. Okay, I'm projecting here. But you get the point.
I've been researching activities that might fall under a broad heading of the "gift economy." This is in service to an eventual book about CharityFocus.org, a non-profit that has over the past decade served as a kind of incubator of gift economy projects.
One of the basic truths about activities as seemingly trivial as buying coffee for the person behind you or opening doors for others is that they are not trivial at all. If you buy the proposition that changing the world for the better starts with yourself, these small acts of generosity, when done with full intention do something quite powerful. They switch your world from a "me" orientation to a "we" orientation. That enlarged and connected sense of self can truly alter everything, from the way you think to the way you act.
The first time I encountered this approach was in writing a small article about CharityFocus.org for The Christian Science Monitor, when I was that newspaper's San Francisco bureau chief. And I remember as clear as a ringing bell, the dawning recognition that generosity was not about fixing some external problem. It was about me. About creating an internal shift, about establishing a different base of thinking.
Lewis Hyde wrote a book called The Gift in 1983. It is both brilliant and utterly resistant to summarizing. But it delves into questions about the worth of creative arts, and the somewhat existential question of how artists can possibly reconcile their "gift" to the commoditization tendencies of the market economy. The book is really a musing about notions of value, reciprocity, and the links and disconnects between the modern economic landscape and the "gift economies" of older cultures. It is mentioned here to suggest that the notion of a gift economy is not a leftist alternative to capitalism. The fact is that we are probably all wired, both physiologically and socially, to seek cooperation and collaboration despite an educational system and social context that works from cradle to grave to inculcate in us a zero-sum view of the world. Resources are finite, life is short, get what you can -- and if you have a little excess, perhaps write a check to your favorite charity.
In my book research, I read literally dozens of testimonials each and every day from people who have discovered in the smallest act of generosity a very large sense of joy. And a majority decides to "pay it forward" in some way. And so these acts never stand-alone. They reverberate inwardly and replicate outwardly.
So buy that cup of coffee for the person behind you. You'll feel great. You have science behind you. But you won't really need that affirmation. The thing you'll notice the most is what happens inside.
And make no mistake, the economy, as you have known it will never be the same.
More from the author: Paul Van Slambrouck
I completely get the point Paul is making. I also get the contrarian's points. It seems to me that most of contrarians are using the "logic" to counter Paul's argument. Paul's point can't be debated with only logical arguments alone. His points are more about being good, altruistic, spiritual and completely different from Market Based Economy. I think, there are pointers all around us - the market based economy, the self sufficient society isn't making us happier as individuals and prosperous as society. Reasons are that we are gone too far away from valuing happiness, satisfaction, friendships, goodwill as much as we value the money and hoarding what we may not need.
I had a similar feeling few years ago, and started working on an idea -- it's called "Goodsq", "Good Square", "Good to the power 2" -- call it what easy for you. My goal when I started with was to make people think more meaningfully about their relations. My realization has been humble and a bit saddening - people are more selfish and would do anything when they are made guilty, greedy and when they want to brag. My experiment is still on and I am determined. Please check this out at - www.goodsq.com.[Hide Full Comment]
I like to think that I have a healthy contempt for
political correctness; I do not overly romanticize communities that enjoy long,
traditional social systems; and I am largely skeptical of the way the
epithet "wisdom" is so facilely applied to ancient cultures. But
I'd have to choke a little hard to apply the phrase
"primitive societies" to the Coast Salish, Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan, and
Tsimshian First Nations who practice the potlatch. Quite aside the pejorative aspect of
the description, it obscures the fact that the potlatch remains a vibrant,
contemporary practice. While the
potlatch was banned in Canada between 1855 and 1951 – and for a similar period
within the United States, I believe – it did not disappear and retains a social
and economic relevance in those First Nations communities for whom it is
Still your basic point is a
good one: potlatching is a superb example of a gift economy practice.
Yvonne Wilson of Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations has written an interesting
explanatory comment on potlatching in the context of a discussion on the gift
MBJ[Hide Full Comment]
As we were taught in High School Driver's Ed, back in the olden days, :-), Courtesy is contagious!! Get the fever!!!!
My exhusband gave me many gifts, his love for 25 years, two fantastic children and a horse that changed the course of both our lives, the result of which is I am daily able to gift my new energy, soulfulness and conscious living to my family and friends, the process of divorce has enabled me to gift a mortgage repayment for a friend in trouble, rent for a girl friend beginning to live alone and to fly a beloved horse, Oscar, to Australia for a friend who had been supported by his love whilst undergoing cancer treatment and upon recovery had moved to Oz and missed Oscars love so much it was wonderful getting a picture of their reunion at 4 am in Perth. I have in return been supported by so many people each time I have need something, from a contact to help me with information processing or gathering to some one willing to listen on the phone at 3 am when the journey looks black and hopeless. Small or large paying forward in terms of financial or spiritual connects and transforms us.[Hide Full Comment]
I strongly disagree with your 2nd paragraph. Compassion and kindness and help in anyway is an expression of your vunerability in this day and age. If you do what you say the receiver will exploit you again and again.
My philosophy is to help anyone who is physically challenged.
In this country there are not too many opportunities for them.
And by the way for a driver ranting at the long slow lines a SMILE does wonders !
I do agree that when we are in a full-blown gift economy, money will be unnecessary. However, in the meantime, while we are bridging the gap, most gifts will cost someone financially.
Progressivepam’s definition of “gift” in her reply below
(…giving something without expectation of return (either in money or demands or
manipulation) shines light on a dilemma I often experience. I find myself
reluctant to use “Smile Cards” because I feel like I’m asking people to do
something in response to my act of kindness - i.e. pay it forward. That does
seem like a dilemma: we want to freely give a gift, yet we also want to raise
awareness around the concept by describing and demonstrating how it works.
Promoting an idea, however good, sort of implies that you’d like people to
embrace the idea.
Maybe the resolution simply lies in the spirit with which you deliver
the card. If you can maintain a playful, non-attached attitude, then it’s most
likely to succeed.
Does anyone else experience this?
I ran to the store for some additional ingredients for a dinner party, but left my purse at home. Darn, I'd have to go all the way back and I was running out of time. I asked the checker to hold onto my groceries, when the man next to me (big, black, comfortable, cheerful) said he would cover the almost $10. I was surprised, and thanked him, but said no. He insisted, saying "You never know what life has in mind for you." I understood him to mean God, so of course I accepted. I thanked him with gratitude, and gifted him the good feeling associated with unconditional giving.
a new yoga studio just opened in my town, Asheville, NC. It is totally free. beautiful space, all teachers teach as a gift, everyone is welcome. and it's taking over the yoga scene! the classes are always full, the teachers are blossoming when they are free to teach as a gift and not worry about being the best so the classes will fill up. And people are being exposed to yoga!. The community of folks who practice here volunteer their time to make the studio happen in every way. A new parking lot was needed and in under three weeks the community raised 12,000 dollars to make it happen. Its' an amazing place. Asheville Community Yoga.
In between rains I go out and plant a few saplings. In this weather they have a good chance of surviving and thriving. Is this an act of kindness or what? I don't know.
Yesterday I presented a few saplings as a birth day gift. Is this part of the gift economy? I don't know.
I have been doing things like these all my life.
This is a great article and I love the message behind it: "Give unconditionally". I can relate to this because of what I am currently facing with my country, Egypt. There are various plans similar to this that focus on simply giving without expecting. I also deeply believe that if such an economy existed, money itself wouldn't find its place in life but rather at heart. Growth, contribution, and even significance would become ego-less since the attachment to "getting back something" would perish. The reason many people find it difficult to believe such an economy would exist is because we're conditioned to think that the ultimate superior to money is a bank; never the people. If we thought beyond physically and corporate entities in such cases, the world's currency would be a smile.
One of the opportunities I believe we are changed when we can do something for someone else and they not find out about it. Another way is to be in gratitude. Both seem to change me internally and therefore I respond to others differently.
There's such a special feeling that goes along with giving or receiving a gift that just purely given. It feels like, well, love.
1 reply: Manisha | Post Your Reply
I think this article misrepresents the gift economy - or at the very least, it presents a mixed money/gift economy with a very heavy stress on the "money" parts. In the pure gift economy, you are supposed to make what you gift, or add value to previously received gifts and pass them on. Money does not work this way at all.
On Jun 9, 2017 Daniel Silva wrote:
We are the change for a better world
Post Your Reply