The Gift Economy and You

I want you to think for a minute about the last time you enjoyed a Thanksgiving or a Christmas or an Easter dinner with family and friends when you were not the host.

You went to someone’s home (most likely), enjoyed a delicious and deeply filling meal, and spent several hours in leisurely conversation with the family and friends that were gathered there. For many of us, that type of environment makes for a splendid day. I know it certainly does for me. (Janet, if you’re reading this, I adore the Thanksgiving meals that you host, with Ron’s aid in the kitchen.)

After that wonderful meal and gathering, did you feel the need to stand up, thank the host, and offer to give them $100 for the meal and experience?

I’m going to bet that almost everyone reading this said, “No! That would be rude!”

Why is it rude, though? Someone else went to significant expense to provide you with a wonderful meal and a great experience? Shouldn’t you pay them for that? If you were in a restaurant with that same group of people, you would expect to pay.

The reality is that a shared meal like this doesn’t operate under normal economic rules. You don’t directly pay people for the things they do for you and for the company they provide.

Instead, most relationships between people – not between a person and a business, but between two people – operates on more of a “gift economy.” You give them things – physical items, experiences, companionship, assistance when needed – and they give you things at other times. It is rarely a direct exchange of goods.

Sure, you might bring a bottle of wine with you to such a gathering, but you wouldn’t be disinvited without one. It’s just considered an appropriate gift.

This “gift economy” spreads far beyond holiday meals. When you give your neighbor some vegetables from your garden, that’s part of this “gift economy.” When you help the guy down the street move his couch, that’s part of a “gift economy.” When a friend sees you stuck along the road and stops to help you or give you a ride, that’s part of a “gift economy.”

It’s all about one-sided exchanges of value that will likely be reciprocated down the road, but aren’t required to do so.

From my perspective, the more people you have in your life and the more gifting relationships you have, the better your life is going to be.

The reason is simple: virtually always, you’re going to receive more value than you give.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that you’re in a book club with five or six other people (my wife happens to be in one). Once a month, you get together for dinner, which is made by one of the hosts, and for drinks afterwards while you discuss that month’s book. You can bring a drink or a dessert if you want, but it’s not required.

The person hosting the club meeting gets nothing in return for it, and there might be people who show up unexpectedly who don’t host in the future. The person hosting might also not be able to go to every meeting.

Still, let’s map this out. In exchange for hosting two club meetings a year, which requires you to make a meal for six people and have some drinks on hand, you get ten free meals with drinks per year, plus you get to hang out with some people you like every month for a year.

That’s a tremendous bargain, one that only works in a gifting economy.

What about another example? Your neighbor is sick, so you volunteer to watch her children while she convalesces. You keep them for supper that night, feeding them what you were already planning on having for supper – the only loss for you is less leftovers. You also put some sleeping bags in the living room for them to sleep on until the next morning. Your children are thrilled to have kids over to play with and it’s really not too much effort for you.

A few months later, you’re sick. You have a babysitter’s number… but your neighbor sees you trudging about and asks if you’re ill. Because you are, she just takes the kids from you, no questions asked. You don’t have a babysitter’s expense and you know your kids are safely next door. You flop in bed to feel better, with no worries and no expenses.

That’s far more valuable than the small cost and effort that you gave.

Sure, sometimes you don’t get a gift in return if you give these types of gifts to others. However, the vast majority of the time, the gifts you give are of relatively low expense and effort for you, but when they’re reciprocated, they save you a ton of time and effort. The value of a timely gift or a useful gift received far outweighs the cost of the ones you’re giving out, almost always.

My philosophy? Give of your time and effort and even of your things, particularly when it’s not a huge stretch for you. What seems like such a simple gift for you to give is often an enormous help for the recipient.

In time, many people will often gift you back. It’s not a strict requirement, of course, and some won’t ever return your generosity. However, it doesn’t take much given in return to make up for a lot of what you’ve given to others.

Being a part of a gifting economy – paying it forward all the time, in other words – can end up helping you in more ways than you can possibly guess, and it costs you very little.

Give a gift or a helping hand. You’ll be glad you did.

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