Optimizing for Conviviality: Gifts (Part One: Cultivating Generosity)


Over Christmas, the topic of gifts naturally came to my mind as something that there’s quite a bit to say about. Of course it’s taken me a while to set aside enough time to write these thoughts up (in fits and spurts, here and there — further complicated by the that this topic has proven large enough to need to be split into two posts). An upside to this is that the thought of gifts should once again have divorced itself from anxieties around the sense of obligation that seems to be attached to Christmas gifts. That’s not really the sort of gift I’d like to focus on, preferring to look at day-to-day gifts that may be small, intangible, and further removed from the scope of commerce.

By removed from the scope of commerce, I mean to start by looking at gifts as an economic activity, and what I mean by this is to make a bit of a rough classification. If a person sets out to provide something of value to another person without seeking to receive something of value in return, then that’s a gift. If the goal is for both people to provide things of comparable value to each other, then that’s a transaction. There’s a third option that’s harder to name, in which someone seeks to get something of value without trying to provide value; there’s a strong temptation to call it theft, but theft carries the weight of a judgement that I don’t think is right to apply to dumpster-diving and other scavenging activities, or to simply accepting a gift.

What I mean to suggest here is that one of the ways to optimize for conviviality is to try and skew one’s own economic activities away from transactions, and towards gifts.

There are a few reasons for this: the first being simply that gifts feel good, both to receive and to give; there’s also the way it ties in to a sense of abundance or scarcity (a topic which I suspect deserves its own post in the future); and finally there’s the enormous amount of effort that goes into maintaining a deeply imperfect system of trying to balance what is given and what is received in the transaction economy (by which I mean pretty much the entire financial sector — I’m guessing that the cost of keeping score is also a topic that could fill an entire post).

One thing that I don’t mean to suggest is that it’s a good idea to abandon transactions entirely in favour of gifts. As a long term strategy, it would be nice to work towards having an economic reality where this sort of thing is realistic. On a more practical and short-term level, not only is it good to take smaller steps in the direction of more gifts and fewer transactions, but it’s also worth remembering that there’s a lot of grey area between pure gifts and pure transactions: things like giving someone a really good deal in a transaction, or doing (extra) chores in a communal setting. So not only is it good to replace something that seems like an outright system of transactions with an outright system of gifts, it’s also good to nudge some activities from something that’s more towards the transaction end of the grey area, a little more towards the gift end.

So this leaves the ever-tricky question: how do I do that? There’s an obvious temptation to look at our own needs for food and shelter, get into a mindset of “but I don’t know that I could meet those needs with the gifts that people give me”, and get sucked right into the trap of trying to figure out how to receive gifts.

The only approach to this trap that I can make any sense of is an indirect approach: supposing that I want to receive more gifts, then I should try to live in a world where more gifts are being given; if I want to live in a world where more gifts are given, I should create that world by giving more gifts.

Where this is still a trap is that I could be giving “gifts” which I still believe deep down are some sort of transaction with society at large. After enough giving I may start to wonder why I haven’t yet gotten my end of the (nonexistent) deal, and get frustrated both with giving “gifts”, and with society for treating them as the actual gifts that I was pretending they were.

Fortunately, there’s a neat little details that makes this much easier: absent any anxiety about scarcity that might follow from giving too much, having a gift appreciated is one of the most enjoyable experiences we can possibly have. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant gift, or one that’s difficult to give, it just has to be appreciated.

I’m going to share two anecdotes around the joy of giving a gift and having it appreciated. The first returns to Christmas, and includes a practice that readers who celebrate Christmas (or really any holiday which revolves around gift-giving) might want to adopt if they don’t already.

When I was growing up, my father was quite adamant that Christmas gifts should be opened one at a time, and everyone watch the gift being opened (at least in our house; when we were celebrating Christmas at the homes of other relatives, we opened gifts in the manner that they saw fit). What this meant was that no one ever had to miss seeing someone’s reaction to the initial discovery of what their gift was, whether because they were too busy opening a gift that they’d been given, or because more than one of their gifts was being opened at the same time. This provided a concrete experience of the joy of giving that I’m seeking to describe.

The other anecdote describes another tangible experience that I distinctly remember (it’s an experience that solidly outs me as an affluent Westerner, which I hope lends credibility to my claims in earlier posts that affluent Westerners have a particularly dire need for more conviviality). It took place the first time I went to Burning Man. One relevant feature of the setting for this particular anecdote is that people entering Burning Man are required to demonstrate that they have the means to survive the week relatively independently, in order to be admitted to the event. The other
feature is that there’s a massive surplus of everything, and all of it is given away as gifts (as commerce is forbidden at the event).

This context is important to my saying that the single most enjoyable experience that I had during that entire week was giving a gift that was clearly appreciated. The opportunities to eat delicious food that other people were giving away, to ogle art, play with bizarre and large toys, to dance, drink, take drugs, have sex, or any of the other things that people usually seek to do with their money (and attempt — sometimes successfully — to exercise discipline to avoid doing too much of); these opportunities were literally inexhaustible (it’s commonly, correctly observed that there are multiples, if not orders of magnitude, more things to see and do in that week than there is time to see and do them all). I certainly took advantage of many of the opportunities that best matched my tastes and desires, but none of those experiences could hold a candle to the simple act of giving away a bag of chocolate chips to complete strangers who, if I’ve seen them in the six and a half years since, didn’t recognize me, nor I them.

And yes, it was just a bag of chocolate chips, and it was to a large group of people. See, it being my first time, I knew there was a culture of giving gifts, but had little to no idea what to give apart from vague suggestions that it didn’t have to be big, fancy, or expensive. Being a chocoholic, I decided that chocolate was the way to go, and brought chocolate chips to give away. One afternoon, once I was settled in enough, I set out to give away these chocolate chips, and wandered around offering them to people. In some respects, this wasn’t a great time to give them away, as we were out in the high desert, in the midday summer sun. Being hot, dry, and maybe vaguely thirsty really doesn’t put one in the mood for chocolate chips. In one important other respect, it was an excellent time; after I’d given up on finding anyone who wanted any chocolate chips and started to walk back to my camp, I came across a camp that was giving away ice cream (which was far more appropriate to the physical environment). There was a line-up of people waiting to get some ice cream, and just past the front of that line, there was a stream of people who’d just been given an ice cream cone, and might want chocolate chips on them. Needless to say, most of them did indeed want chocolate chips on their ice cream, and as I made my offer, I could see each of them squeal in delight, their eyes alight, as they went from thinking “sweet, I just got an ice cream cone” to “oh my god, I just got a mini-sundae”. I got to be thanked by the people giving away the ice cream for making their gift even better.

It probably helped that the baseline requirement that everyone have their survival needs met for the week effectively erased any concern that I might be creating a situation of scarcity by giving away my chocolate chips. It certainly shaped my understanding of the experience that it was anonymous enough for me to absolutely no expectation that anyone give me anything back (which I might worry about having disappointed). Basically, the things that strike me as complicating and confounding the joy of generosity were notably absent. There was just the act of giving, and the observation of how unimaginably good it felt.

This also raises a subtle point that a sincere expression of gratitude for a gift received is one of the best things that to give someone (and if you try this and notice the recipient of your gratitude reacting to that gratitude, that might in turn allow you to experience the joy of giving your gratitude, and if they notice that joy — well let’s just say that gratitude freely and sincerely (not necessarily verbally) given can create a joyous (if brief) little feedback loop.

At this point, we should return to the point of how to create more opportunities to experience gifts (and gratitude) by giving more gifts. However this seems like a good place to break for the next post, which will be dedicated to the subtopic of finding abundance.

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