Generosity arbitrage

Here’s a nifty transaction for the economically-minded among you (and for everyone else too):

  1. I bought lunch at the local Thai restaurant for $8.55
  2. I got $0.45 change that I dropped in the tip jar, for which I got a smile
  3. I got a stamp on my “Buy 10 noodles or entrees get one free” card, which made me smile

The stamp is worth about $0.85 (1/10th the price of an entrée), though in reality a little less since I’ve been known to lose the card.  So basically the 45 cent tip I’m giving and the stamp I’m receiving are a wash, financially speaking.

Even though the transaction would have been almost identical – in terms of money changing hands – if I’d not gotten the stamp and I’d not left the tip,  that’s not how it felt at all.  How it felt was that we each (I and the restaurant owner) had taken the opportunity to trade gifts, we had each willingly acted generous with each other, and we both came out ahead as a result.

There’s a reason that there is a tradition of exchanging gifts – whether at holidays (synchronously) or birthdays (asynchronously).  It’s because gifts are special, irrational things that allow us to express love or thanks or hope.

One of the biggest problems about looking at everything through an economic lens is that you inevitably place more value on the things that are easy to count and easy to measure.

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