There is enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.
All human societies are built on a number of basic assumptions that determine the choices their people make and the systems they rely on to organise their life.
A fundamental of our scientific, profit driven, materialistic worldview says that we are selfish creatures randomly evolved from chaos through a competitive process of selection, struggling for survival and intrinsically concerned by self-interest. All our educational, social, economical, political, cultural as well as mental and emotional makeup are built on this assumption. What if it was flawed? What if it was wrong – dreadfully wrong?
This is the question Nipun Mettha, founder of Service Space and giftivism activist raises: “What designs, institutions, systems or projects would emerge if we assumed that people want to behave selflessly? If you look at economics, it is built on the premise that people want to maximize self-interest. It is the basic building block of economics – that people are selfish. What would happen if we turned that question on its head and say, actually, maybe people want to be selfless?”
Service Space runs a number of service projects that started as generosity experiments and ended up, not only generating value, but also bringing working answers to some of the most crucial problems of our modern societies – things like over consumption, social disparities, isolation, meaninglessness, scarcity, etc. Nipun argues that giftivism not only creates synergistic bonds based on kindness and generosity between individuals but also generates profit.
His Karma kitchen based on the principle of ‘pay it forward’ charges nothing for a meal. Someone has already paid for yours and you are offered the opportunity to make the gift of a free meal to the next customer. “You can imagine the business school folks scratching their head and asking, what is this about? You trust people? This is not what we taught in school!” Yet, the chain has continued unbroken for the last 4 years, 26.000 meals served and growing.
Intrigued by the Karma kitchen story, University of California Berkeley Pr Leif Nelson from the Haas School of Business conducted a similar experiment in a cartoon museum that led to the conclusions that the idea that people are motivated by generosity does work.
From an original price of a dollar per ticket, three successive experiments were conducted. The first one was to advertise a free entry and invite people to give something in a donation box. Average return per ticket rose to $1.23. The second step was to humanize the interaction with the donation being given to a cashier. People gave on average $2. The third one appealed to generosity and interconnection and suggested customers could pay for the entry of the next visitor. People gave on average $3.
Surprised? Maybe not so much but probably quite excited!
In the same line of thought, I recently came across a very interesting article by Frances Moore Lappe on the ‘eco mind’ that further seems to disprove the selfishness myth.
The following are some excerpts from the article.
“Breakthroughs in a range of disciplines are confirming what we already know about ourselves, if we stop and think about it: That humans are complex creatures and what we do – from raising children to caring for elders to sharing with our neighbors – exhibits at least as much natural tendency to cooperate as to compete.”
Frances quotes archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, “The view that our species is basically brutal defies the evidence: There is a very tiny handful of incidences of conflict and possible warfare before 10,000 years ago, and those are very much the exception.” Frances goes on mentioning revealing pieces of research:
“University of California anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy challenged the accepted belief that our penchant for cooperation emerged through bonding to fight our neighbors. Instead, our capacity for cooperation evolved in response to our unique breeding culture: While other primates generally don’t trust others to care for their infants, humans have long turned to aunties, grandmas, and friends to help care for their babies from birth. With these “helpers,” children have the “luxury of growing up slowly, building stronger bodies, better immune systems, and in some cases bigger brains.” It is this capacity for cooperation, honed through shared child rearing, that most distinguishes Homo sapiens, claims Hrdy.
And there is a lot more but as we have taken too much time, I will only quote three more researches mentioned in Frances’ article:
- Psychologists usually agree that, on average, more than 80 percent of the happiness we experience comes from relationships, health, spiritual life, friends, and work fulfillment whilst only 7 percent is about money.
- A study in Science in 2008 reported that we actually get greater pleasure from giving than receiving. Neuroscience say that when human beings cooperate, our brains’ pleasure centers are as stimulated as when we eat chocolate!
- Another study reported in Nature in 2010 tells the surprising story of how, when you ask a young man who has just been rewarded a $50 bonus to imagine how they would feel if they got another bonus, or if the next bonus went to their partners, it is the image of their partner’s happiness that lit up their brain’s pleasure centre.
Could it be that Darwin, Freud and Adam Smith got it wrong? The only thing we know for sure is that, from where we stand today, both cooperation and competition can explain our evolutionary success. So is it, once more, coming down to a question of choice about the point of view we adopt on reality?
Imagine what would happen if we were reconsidering our assumptions, not for the ‘scientific truth’ they represent but for the practical effects they produce? Could we even imagine another way of gauging a nation’s or a people’s relative prosperity than the GDP and get out of the oppressive tyranny of economics? Could we come back to a more realistic understanding of what it means to be alive, healthy and successful? Some are already seriously talking about it and develop the idea of a GHI – a global Happiness index.
Want even more? Read, watch, listen ~
Is GDP An Obsolete Measure of Progress? Judith D. Schwartz in Time Online
Measuring Real Progress by Ron Colman published in the Oxford leadership journal
Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index on TED talk
- No, we are not selfish – co-operation is at the heart of our existence | Charles Leadbeater (guardian.co.uk)
- Paths Are Made By Walking (insightnewspaper.wordpress.com)