Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Generosity Impulse

Before I started Chowhound, friends asked me "Why would people provide food tips for free? What's their motivation?" This incredulity seems hard to fathom after the fact, much as few of us seem to remember a time when immigrant food was considered cheap crap, scarcely worth respect, much less evangelization (serious food was served on linen tablecloths by deferential servers). What a difference twenty years makes!

But it was - and still is - a reasonable question. Why would people help each other? The entire field of economics is predicated on the assumption that people act out of self-interest, even when they appear to be helpful or generous. Indeed, many people offered advice on Chowhound to augment their social cache or feelings of self-worth. But that doesn't explain everyone. Some helped purely to help.

The biggest saving grace of humanity is that we really do have a strong visceral impulse to help. At our deepest level, we're empathic beings who make other people's problems our problems. Ants heroically sacrifice for the good of the colony, and we never lost our primeval ant DNA.

You'd never know it to observe us, of course. We don't ordinarily display this side of ourselves because countless factors inhibit it. Shyness, fear of random crazies, fear of people "getting the wrong idea", fear of getting over-involved, etc., etc.. But the anonymity of the Internet relaxes those inhibitions, and demonstrates how generous people really are at heart. Queue tasks for people - strangers without self-interest - and they will come out of the woodwork to chip away at the queue. Look, for instance, at Ask Metafilter. Do you not feel at least a small tug upon spotting a question you're able to help with? That's it, right there. It ain't huge, but it's baked in.

I had an idea some time ago for extending innate generosity beyond the safe haven of computer screens. It's an online/offline solution for removing the inhibitions blocking helpful urges (i.e. allowing us to finally be fully human) here in the physical world. Unfortunately, for the time being, I seem to lack the ability to get people the least bit interested in a unique, sorely-needed, and meticulously crafted app in the food realm where so many people obsess and where I'd thought I had some cache. So I'm reluctant to pursue more ambitious and far-flung ideas for now. Maybe later, when I'm younger.

But while I've devised a possible solution to the inhibition problem, what's more intriguing is the generosity impulse itself. We didn't know we had one! It took the Internet to fully bring it out. That said, most current day social media is doing everything possible to squelch it. Facebook, for example, is utterly narcissistic: "my favorite bands, my favorite movies, here's where I went on vacation, and here's a cat video I found cute. Please "like" this so I enjoy a meaningless unit of reward, and then please share it to spread my brand." Seeing this selfishness - this wasted opportunty - 21 years after Chowhound launched, I feel like the crying Indian from the ad. We had it so good! Why, for heaven's sake, did we ever choose this?!?

But none of that erases the fact that the generosity impulse will always be there. Let's do what nobody does, and take a close look at an instinct so radically surprising that it disproves the fundamental tenet of a field of study that has, for centuries, engaged our brightest minds. Having observed it up close with Chowhound - and fostered it, basked in it, and been so seduced by it that I'd stay with that hell for all those years - I now spot it, in tiny expressions, everywhere. It's a cliche to observe that people want to "connect", but that's the shallow interpretation of a much deeper drive. People don't just want to connect, they want to sacrifice and fix and help and elevate. My instinct - which, come to think of it, is the very same instinct I've just described! - is to concentrate on what impedes that impulse. But for now, again, let's stay with the impulse itself.

I begin the exploration armed with only one single thought: Maslow's Hammer. To paraphrase (the original quote was horridly wordy and stammering, per my third writing tip):
"If you're holding a hammer, all problems look like nails."
I don't completely understand how it applies to the generosity impulse. But here's the thing. If you cultivate that impulse - by peeling away inhibitions - you'll discover that there's no essential difference between addressing someone else's problem and your own. It's all just problems. True generosity isn't proffered with radiant mirth. Even angels don't work that way. You just get it done. True generosity doesn't come with a big cheesy smile or a wave of some sparkly wand. True generosity doesn't stick around to accept a kiss from the distress-relieved damsel. It's like solving problems for yourself: you toil some, and then, remark "Whew! That's done!", and you move on to the next foible. It's doing, not basking. There's no cinematic view.

So back to the image of Maslow's hammer. I'll sketch the connection lightly: "If you're holding a solution, all problems look like your problem." That's not great, but let's see if the Slog elicits anything more interesting next time. Maybe you can think on it, too?

To be continued....

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