Gift Economy

filed under: 

Life is best enjoyed when lived fully, when we participate wholeheartedly in it, when the inevitable passage of time is filled with daily doses of fun and joy; and life becomes enjoyable when relationships are rooted in trust and love, and when the income-generating work that we choose to engage in makes play look contrived in comparison.

I know, I know… utopian, most would say, with a shake of their heads. George Bernard Shaw anticipated early on - exactly what I feel today - when he said, “Everyone dies, but not everyone fully lives. Too many people are having a near-life experience.”

I truly feel that it doesn’t have to be this way. While our concerns about financial security make this vision seem unattainable, can we allow ourselves to imagine a world that is gentler and less insistent, where time is not simply a platform for soulless activity that helps pay the bills, where life-work-play becomes a single unified process, their limbs intertwined intimately and inextricably with each other? “For it is in giving that we receive.” – St. Francis of Assisi

If you have wondered about these questions, then you have been pondering over an idea called the Gift Economy. Is this even possible or is it some incurable romantic’s dream?

Inspired by stories of some early pioneers, I set out on a similar exploration some time ago. And it is the insights gleaned on this exciting and fulfilling journey that I would like to share here with you.

There isn’t much to it really: all that is required, is to give in ever-increasing ways of what one has, what one knows and what one is. And to give without expectation of profit or return.

The Gift Economy is just a modern day label for the ancient idea (Nishkama Karma or Karma Yoga) that marries living, working and playing into a unified whole. If you find the idea absurd at first glance, a closer look at Nature should clear your doubts. The sun shines its life-affirming light on us all the time. The winds swoop across oceans and continents without restraint, carrying seeds and rainclouds. The rivers and the oceans move water tirelessly around the planet, transforming atmospheric moisture into rainclouds, into rain, back into the rivers and oceans in a cycle that we have barely begun to understand. Plants and trees never stop converting carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen.

There are also hurricanes and volcanoes and destruction in Nature. But out of these arise new forms and new life and these endless cycles of giving and transforming have kept Earth and its denizens alive for millions of years.

Essentially however, nature offers herself freely, without fear of being diminished. The very nature of Nature is to give. And each one of these elements in turn is enriched by the abundant giving of everything else around it. When we learn to give without expectation, like all of Nature does, we will have transitioned into the Gift Economy. A closer look at how we can make this transition is in order here.

Practice of Gift Economy:

Creating Value: The Gift Economy recognizes a simple but profoundly important idea: creating value by being of service to people and others around us may create value in some form for us as well. Here is where our existing economy falters.

Our deep-rooted belief in a competitive world kicks into action here and we make value-creation totally subservient to earning profits. Profit is not at all a bad thing, but when it takes precedence over value-creation, we have to admit there is something missing. Despite this distorted focus, some value does get created but it seems almost incidental to the act of earning profits.

Having first decided that our primary purpose in life is to pay the obligatory bills, we create artificial needs in peoples’ minds through aggressive and often misleading advertising. Our sub-standard goods and lacking-in-heart services are then offered to the world at exorbitant prices with the intention of making as much profit as we can. And then we do something incredible - we believe others’ false advertising and end up paying money to buy their goods, even as they too are caught up in the same game! I sometimes wonder if the animal world is on the forest floor right now, having a big guffaw.

Wouldn’t instead, a genuine offering of our time, energy and talents, wrapped in affection and concern for the well-being of our fellow Earthlings, make for a far kinder and better world?

There are two other radical departures that the Gift Economy makes from the existing economic system:

One: Transactional vs. Paying it forward
Our existing economic system is based on the premise that we derive value largely from transactional relationships. We do things for others only on the promise of receiving something that is of equal or greater value, from the people to whom we offer our time, products and
services to.

The Gift Economy on the other hand is based on the idea that communities are strengthened through our gifts of time and talents, being paid forward. The gift economy is therefore not the barter system. Here, we do not expect to receive a certain value from someone in return for what we do for them. Our time and talents are offered freely with the knowledge that when the time comes, our needs will be well met by others in our communities who happen to have what we need.

Two: Money as a medium
The Gift Economy also discards the assumption that money is needed to access resources. We need to realize that money is just a medium. Resources are freely available, but we are taught that without money, we just cannot get what we need.

However, for years now people have demonstrated that the services people need can be offered for free. Websites like Couchsurfing and Freecycle have been hugely successful in connecting people who want to give, with those who want to receive. According to Couchsurfing, there have been 1,793,958 experiences (as of January 2010) of hosting people and of being hosted for free across the world!

Freecycle and Freegle allow people across the world to give away things they no longer need to others who could make use of them. This also encourages a more efficient use of available resources. Freecycle has more than 6,951,000 members across the globe. These are stupendously high numbers by any standards and are just two examples.

The huge success of these websites depends largely on growing numbers of people participating in this process of paying-it-forward. What is admirable is that all of it is based entirely on trust. There is no monitoring to see if members are contributing to the process or not. And yet the contributions keep pouring in. Somehow, receiving useful services from others inspires the realization in people that giving can be a whole lot of fun too.

There are other inspiring examples such as the Seva Café in Ahmedabad, India, and the numerous Vipassana Meditation Centres across the world which have succeeded in convincing their patrons to pay-it-forward. Visitors at both places are offered the choice to make a voluntary contribution that will help pay for people coming after them, just as they are able to enjoy a service that others before them have paid for.

Charity Focus, a US based non-profit, is another excellent example of how to make the Gift Economy a fun and happy place to be. They are responsible for several exciting initiatives such as Smile Cards,, and that have been bringing in a much needed dose of positivity across the world over the last few years.

Where does this kind of trust and faith come from to live one’s life? How can we be free of the diseases of fear, scarcity and mistrust? This is the question I set out to answer for myself in early 2008.

‘Living’ Gift Economy

Since early 2008, my life has been a happy, ongoing experiment. Following the call of my heart, I completely stopped charging people for the services that I provide. My time, skills and experience are now offered freely to the world as a gift. And what stands out for me is this: worry is a totally misplaced emotion in the gift economy world. You are completely taken care of.

Each and every unconditional gift of my time has brought in a generous inflow of money, thoughtful gifts and a whole lot of heartwarming goodwill that just cannot be purchased for any amount. Events of the last two years have only reinforced my belief that giving always begets receiving, even if this receiving sometimes happens over a period of time and occasionally from people other than who you may have created value for. An anonymous gift of money, and not an insubstantial amount at that, has also found its way into my hands through friends.

More importantly, offering my time and experience as a gift to the world has allowed me to adopt completely new parameters to figure out just what I would like to work on. Since my time and knowledge are offered for free, money is no longer a part of the equation for me. Enjoying what I do or being able to learn from my work has become far more important to me.

I no longer feel limited to doing one or two activities that would normally define one’s ‘profession’. My interests span many different activities including music composing, workshop design and facilitation, organizing learning visits across India, photography, writing and print design. Every one of these activities has now become an exciting medium for me to share my gifts with the world, while being supported completely. My work is now about who I am rather than about what I do.

A Way of Life


If I believe that people and the world are an extension of me, then trusting people and believing in their goodness becomes easier. In choosing this way of life, certain questions naturally arise. Would my offers of gifts be rejected outright? Would people misunderstand my motives? The answer for me lay in starting small. Practicing ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ every day were really useful not only in helping me figure out the blocks in my mind, but also in expanding the comfort zones I had built up.

Another pillar of the Gift Economy is that giving precedes receiving. When everybody gives, a large enough pool of resources is made available from which people can meet their needs. In waiting for the other to give first, we would simply be perpetuating the values of the existing economic system.

What I love most about the Gift Economy is this: it can only work if you are happy! To give without expectation of return, there must be a genuine contentment with one’s life and deep gratitude for being able to experience the sheer magic of Life.