Monday, April 9, 2012

Give a Lotta Love

Discovering Gift Culture

Coming to understand and live within a gift culture has profoundly improved my life. A year ago I viewed gifts as things I wrapped up and gave to family and friends on special occasions with the expectation of receiving something in return. But a shift occurred when I started interacting with people who viewed giving and receiving as an uncalculated expression of love and trust between all of us. I was intrigued. Why were these people being so nice to everyone? The motto “Be Selfish, Be Generous” didn’t really make sense until I experienced fully giving myself. With the goal of increasing love in the world and ourselves, giving is a most excellent approach.

Embedded in a this-for-that perspective, learning about gift culture took some time and different ways of knowing. I watched others give and receive with their whole heart over and over again. I started reading about generosity, kindness, and happiness. And most importantly, I tried it out. I remember the moment when it all clicked, walking down the street in a rough neighborhood with a noble friend who sporadically decided that we would give away a bunch of yellow tulips she had just received. I smiled and handed a flower to a woman coming out of a bar. She took it, held it to her chest, and said, “You don’t know how much this means to me right now.” Well, after that I was hooked.

To reinforce my understanding, I found it helpful to have the pieces of the gifting process described. Lewis Hyde’s work, The Gift,1 provided the initial structure for this description, which helped validate my feelings and provide a foundation to build upon with my own experiences. Based on the knowledge and experience I am gaining, here is what gifts and a gift culture mean to me.

A gift arises when an offering is made from one to another with positive intentions and no direct expectations of return. A gift has two parts: the offering and the increase.

Over dinner with friends, Eric complimented Sam on his scarf. Sam unwrapped his scarf, handed it to Eric, and said, “Here, I want you to have it.”  

The offering is what is being given. Offerings can be physical objects (i.e. a book or homemade blueberry muffins) or acts of service (i.e. teaching someone how to fix their computer or even the simple act of listening). While acts of service may not be typically conceptualized as gifts, they are often the most valuable offerings we contribute. Offerings are especially meaningful when they are born from the giver’s passions and/or fill the receiver’s needs. This means finding your inner gifts, the things that make you come alive, and sharing them. This also involves seeing and listening to the receiver in order to identify their needs and understand how your offerings can help.

Leah went to a cafe, bought a cookie, and asked the barista to give it to the next person who comes in. The barista asked "Why?" She replied "Because it's my birthday and I want to delight someone!" He promised to give the cookie to the next person AND gave her a cookie too, saying "Happy Birthday!" 

Gifts are more than just offerings. Gifts propagate extra favorable outcomes, called “the increase.”1 Gifts increase feelings of happiness, create social connections, and can even grow additional physical offerings. A wealth of research has linked generosity and happiness.2 By studying populations, social and economic scientists have found correlations between well-being and volunteering3 and happiness and spending money on others as oppose to oneself.4,5 By studying the brain, neuroscientists found that giving money to others causes activation of the brain regions representing rewarding stimuli6 even greater than receiving monetary awards.7 In experimental studies, interventions from performing random acts of kindness8 to reflecting on one’s own kind acts9 increased happiness in participants. While we commonly think of the offering as the gift, the increase is the most profound part. Objects and services are consumed, but the increase stays. Giving plants seeds of gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful emotion that sparks happiness and security inside individuals and cements social relationships.10 Gratitude is the force that spreads gifts even further into the lives of others.

From one to another
Jacob was having a difficult week and feeling down. A group of his friends decided to anonymously fill his life with small joys. Fresh strawberries were delivered to his desk. He found that his car had been washed while he was at work and a homemade dinner was waiting on his doorstep. 

Gifts involve passing an offering from one entity to another. Recipients and givers can be groups as well as individuals. The giver does not even have to be known. Giving anonymously helps the receiver to feel a broader sense of gratitude, which may be paid forward to another, spreading the ripples of kindness far and wide. Many cultures also perceive the earth as an important giver and receiver. Viewing nature’s resources as gifts helps us to appreciate her abundance and to feel the responsibility of giving respect and protection to such a generous source. Gifts to the earth can include cleaning up a beach or riding our bicycles instead of cars. When we treat nature as a gift, the increase can be future resources. For example if a forest is not stripped, but respected and given care, it can bear even more gifts to our world.

No direct expectations of return
As I was preparing for a trip out of town, my friend, Shannon, happily volunteered to watch my dog. I left her $200 on the kitchen counter, but when I returned all the money remained untouched - her service was a true gift.

Gifts are given freely, without strings or expectations of a direct reciprocal return from the receiver. This lack of direct reciprocity separates gift giving from trade or market exchange. In market exchange, goods and services are traded for money or other goods, typically with one entity intending to profit from the exchange. Market exchange allows for minimal trust and lots of social distance between the two entities, which can be important and has its place in our world. However, market exchange also typically concludes the relationship and does not readily foster the increase in social connections, togetherness, and community liveliness. Research studies show that participants primed with money did not ask for or provide help to others as often, preferred to play and work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and new acquaintances than unprimed participants.12 

In gifting, just because there is no expectation of return does not mean that gifts have NO return. It just means that offerings are given without direct expectations of the receiver. Gifts plant seeds of gratitude in the receiver. Feelings of love, trust, and abundance grow so that often the positive action of a gift is responded with another positive action, but these outcomes are not expectations.

Positive intentions
Dan, the coffee man, goes into the Michigan Cancer Institute every Thursday to deliver beverage orders to all the patients and caregivers dealing with chemotherapy purely for his love of it

Our intentions and perspectives create gifts. In order for a gift to arise, the giver intends an offering as a gift and/or the receiver perceives an offering as a gift. In intending something as a gift, I found that my perspective shifted from possessions to people, from having stuff to nourishing relationships. In receiving something and perceiving it as a gift, I found that my perspective shifted from entitlement to gratitude. Receiving was not a sterile transaction in an isolated situation, but rather an opportunity to be cared for and to recognize the rich context of my existence. Although serendipitous events also engender kindness,13 having awareness of the gifting spirit may play a role in keeping the gift moving and the spirit alive.

Contributing to a gifting culture involves shifting from fear and greed to love and trust.  Gifts are given with goodwill toward the other, not as a means of manipulation or forced obligation. Gifts are offered from a positive place, stemming from love, delight, excitement, joy, and fun. Gifts that come from a negative place, like fear or coercion, often don’t feel like gifts. Have you ever bought someone a gift out of fear that they would get you something on a holiday? Have you ever been ordered to bring a gift for someone? Something feels off in these situations, both for the giver and receiver. Gifts make community out of individuals through goodwill. Without goodwill, the increase could suffer from a lack of authentic positive emotion even though the offering is made. However, the experience of giving is transformative. Even if a gift is initially given out of fear or obligation, the feeling of providing for another or the receiver’s gratitude can help create a change of heart for the giver and transform the initial intentions.

In certain circumstances, giving a person or community aid can also create discomfort in the receiver14 or exacerbate a problem in the community. Clarifying one’s intention and using both compassion and reason to consider gifting scenarios is very important. Giving motivated by compassion allows us to identify with others as ourselves and realize our connectedness. Equally important, reasoning through the consequences of our gifts allows us to see the impacts on others more fully and decide on a truly loving action.

On an ordinary Wednesday, Mishti pulled into a parking space and the guy getting ready to leave gave her his extra meter time. After running her errands, she gifted her extra time to the person pulling in after her.

Another aspect of gifts is that they keep moving, either the offering or the increase or sometimes both. Gift movement could mean passing along a physical object when you have finished with it (i.e. receiving a book, reading the book, then giving the book away again to someone who would benefit) or knowledge when you have finished obtaining it (i.e. after being taught how to can peaches, practicing the technique and teaching another). Some physical offerings are consumed or retained (i.e. chocolate chip cookies) or are more difficult to directly give away again (i.e. plumbing help without expertise), but the “increase” can be passed along. The gratitude can lead you to give a different gift to another. By paying it forward, the gift keeps moving.

Gift movement creates a cycle.  Gifts flow through people. A stream of generosity weaves through a community. The wider the cycle, the broader the effects, the greater the increase. If only two people swap gifts with one another, the stream cannot bring new gifts in or let old gifts go and a stagnant pool forms. The cycle expands immensely when people give to people different from those they received from. As the cycle expands and reaches more people, the source of the gift is difficult to track – which is great!11 Without knowing the original source of generosity, you are filled with gratitude for everyone. The cycle imbues a blind gratitude in a community and cooperation evolves.15 Over time gift cycles can propagate a sense of broad goodwill, trust, and security in a community.

A Gift Culture
As cycles expand and include family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the potential for increase expands too. When gifts are encouraged to flow, they increase more, literally creating abundance. Sequestering gifts may produce scarcity and a feeling of insecurity arises even though the capacity for abundance exists. We sometimes think we don’t have enough because we think we need to have it all within our sole possession. By reinvigorating a gift culture, our gifts can move from being trapped in our own possession or a small group, to flowing to places of need in our community.

Gifts make visible our interdependence. Being supported and supporting a community can provide one with a sense of security and help develop trust. It is a means for our materials and skills to be shared. It allows our passions to be nourished and our needs to be met. If we are looking for our talents to give and are excited to receive the fruit of others’ passions, we encourage one another to do what makes us come alive. We can live authentically and surround ourselves with a truly thriving group of people.

If we look for people’s needs in our community, gifts find the “empty place.” 1 Gifts can bring forgotten individuals back into the community. Gifts work on social justice through the recognition of needs in our world without a sense of coercion. When gifts are given, they come from the intention of love and not manipulation or pity. The receiver and giver are equals because we have blind gratitude and generosity. There is no subservience or debt. Giving by helping or fixing implies inequality and judgment, but viewing giving as service embodies dignity and reflects a wholeness in life with mutual suffering and joy.16 We are all givers and receivers so there is no place for ego or shame in the gifting process. Givers have humility because they have received so much and receivers are not indebted to any one person, but the world at large. We all embody both roles with gratitude as the connection.

Community liveliness, fun, celebration, and openness result from gifting. While the lack of trust and anonymity allowed for in market exchange can be valuable, having it in so many of our interactions limits this joy and community spirit. So many of us feel isolated and lacking of resources, and the accepted response is fear and hoarding. I believe that the only way through this fear is courage to open our hearts and try an alternative path.

My personal shift
Stepping into this new perspective of a gift culture has been both an invigorating and uncomfortable process. Coming from a this-for-that perspective, I sometimes worry that my own needs will not be met or that others will take advantage of me. Without knowing what I would receive in return, I sometimes cling to my gifts. But, as I gain the courage to give them away, fear is being replaced by a growing sense of purpose, community, and happiness. I started with small experiments, like watching a friend’s child while she went to a doctor’s appointment and smiling to people I pass on the street. While I’ve helped others in the past, conceptualizing my acts as true gifts to help pay forward the support I received and to help create more ripples of kindness in the world gave the actions more meaning and imbued me with a greater sense of fulfillment. Discovering a gift culture has transformed the way I feel about the world. I am questioning what I really needed in life, and am realizing: less stuff, more love. What I am gaining by giving is far exceeding my feared loss, but I didn’t understand this until I've begun to experience it.

Accepting gifts from others is still sometimes challenging. American society encourages us to be fiercely independent, so much so that we blind ourselves to gifts we’ve received from the earth, from our family, from all who came before us. As I leave behind this perception of independence, I feel vulnerable acknowledging that I cannot truly live alone. My mind has been eased by seeing the other side of our interdependence, the abundance and support that has been provided for me all along.

The experiment is ongoing, but the effects in my life have been profound. I still feel attachment to possessions and the calculations of my efforts. I recognize this shift in perspective is a process, and I need to be patient with my growth. I am learning to recognize my own needs and establish boundaries that honor my limits. I work on observing these habits and making conscious decisions about my actions. I foster generous interactions in my life. I learn from others practicing these values around me, and I reach out to share my experiences and help the possibilities of reinvigorating a gift culture. I strive to feel the gratitude and support that fills my life, and not get stuck in fearful stories of not having or being enough. 

What do you really need in your life? Consider the paradox of receiving more by giving more. Just try it out. Start giving. Start providing love and support in unexpected ways and see what happens.

Thank you D. Scott Brown and Leah Pearlman for reading drafts and providing awesome suggestions. Thank you to my friends for agreeing to share some of your beautiful stories.

  1. Hyde, Lewis The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Random House, 1979.
  2. Anik, Lalin, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, and Elizabeth W. Dunn. 2009. Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior. Working paper, Harvard Business School Working Paper.
  3. Meier, Stephan, and Alois Stutzer. “Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?” Economica, 75 (2008): 39-59.
  4. Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. “Spending Money on Other Promotes Happiness.” Science, 319 (2008): 1687-1688.
  5. Abdel-Khalek, Ahmed M. “Measuring happiness with a single-item scale.” Social Behavior and Personality, 34, (2006): 139-150
  6. Harbaugh, William T., Ulrich Mayr, and Daniel R. Burghart. “Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations.” Science, 316, (2007): 1622-1625.
  7. Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roalnd Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Gafman. “Human Fronto-mesolimbic Networds Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, no. 42 (2006): 15623-15628.
  8. Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade. “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.” Review of General Psychology, 9, no 2, (2005): 111-131.
  9. Otake, K. Satoshi Shimai, Junko Tanaka-Matsumi, Kanako Otsui, and Barbara L. Fredrickson. “Happy People Become Happier Through Kindness: A Counting Kindnesses Intervention.” Journal of Happiness Studies, 7 (2006): 361-375.
  10. Algoe, Sara B., Jonathan Haidt, and Shelly L. Gable. “Beyond Reciprocity: Gratitude and Relationships in Everyday Life.” Emotion, 8, no. 3 (2008): 425-429.
  11. Bartlett, Monica Y. and David DeSteno. “Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior: Helping When It Costs You.” Psychological Science, 17, no. 4, (2006):  319-325.
  12. Vohs, Kathleen D., Nicole Mead, and Miranda R. Goode. “The Psychological Consequences of Money.” Science, 314, (2006): 1154-1156
  13. Isen, Alice M., & Levin, Paula F. “The Effect of Feeling Good on Helping: Cookies and Kindness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, (1972): 384-388
  14. Fisher, Jeffery D., Arie Adler, and Sheryle Whitcher-Alagna. “Recipient Reactions to Aid.” Psychological Bulletin, 19, no. 1, (1982): 27-54.
  15. Fowler, James H. and Nicholas A. Christakis. “ Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, no. 12 (2010): 5334-5338.
  16. Remen, Rachel Naomi. “In the Service of Life.” Accessed March 28, 2012


  1. "If you're lucky enough to be at the beach you're lucky enough." Have walked the boardwalk and I'm now sitting at The Avenue having a glass of wine and watching the guest enjoy theirs. Just read your blog as I was relaxing. So MAYBE now I'll try to engage myself in some conversation with those around me. This is out of my comfort zone but who knows where it will lead. Baby Steps! xo

  2. Will you be doing anymore posts???


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