Don’t Give Everything An Exchange Value

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” —Oscar Wilde

Money makes the world go around. From the dawn of money and market societies, we’ve increasingly viewed ideas of value through an economic lens, attempting to tie numbers to both objects and experiences.

This is exchange value—the worth of something based on its ability to be exchanged for other items or money.

But there’s another form of value that gets left out in the cold, that of experiential value. This is the pleasure or fulfillment we get from doing things irrespective of the cost, or indeed where there is often no cost at all.

For example, when you enjoy going for a swim on a hot day, sharing some laughs with friends, or taking in the fresh air with a walk through the woods, you get something that warms the soul without burning a hole in your pocket.

There is something immensely valuable in such activities that can’t—and shouldn’t—be encapsulated in an amount of dollars and cents. Though marketers and businesses will try to sell you experiences, in some cases money will only corrupt and ruin it.

“Anything without a price, anything that can’t be sold, tends to be considered worthless, whereas anything with a price, it is thought, will be desirable” —Yanis Varoufakis, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

Blood Markets

While socialising and nature walks are both enjoyable in their own rights, the experience of giving blood is a bit different, the experience less pleasurable and even quite off-putting.

Robert Titmuss questioned payment for blood in his 1970 book ‘The Gift Relationship’. Many people give blood for the simple reason that they want to help others in need. It’s an altruistic activity, not one of trying to maximise pleasure—though people do feel good when they help others.

But should we donate blood to make money?

It’s a contentious issue. Paying people would surely encourage some people to donate that otherwise wouldn’t, simply because they need the money. And some claim we couldn’t get what we need if we didn’t.

But there are concerns that a monetary incentive would reduce the number of people donating voluntarily, and that the quality of the blood being donated wouldn’t be as high with cash-desperate people attempting to hide concerning health issues.

The World Health Organisation discourages payments, and a 1996 study from New Zealand found that over half of donors said they’d stop if there was a monetary incentive, and concluded that “Embedding transactions that rely so heavily on altruism in commercial organisations endangers the nature of the gift.

Art For Arts Sake

“For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation—the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing—is essential for high levels of creativity.” —Dan Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Not limited to blood donations, the idea that external incentives can undermine intrinsic motivation and lower performance has become known as the ‘Motivation Crowding Theory’.

A now classic study explored what happens when you give children rewards for engaging in artistic activities.

For those that didn’t get a reward, or where rewards were complete surprises, they remained interested in making art. It was a labor of love.

However, for those who were told and therefore expected to get a reward, they kept going only if the rewards kept coming. Their joy in creating art became intertwined with the expectation of an external motivator.

Another example comes from the psychologist Edward Deci, who ran a study tasking participants with answering IQ test questions and solving different puzzles. Some participants were paid to simply show up to the experiment, while others were paid for completing the tasks.

After the experiment, the participants could sit idly. Interestingly, those who had been paid to merely show up continued working on the problems of their own accord, while those who had been paid to complete tasks did not.

“When people are engaged in an activity they consider intrinsically worthwhile, offering them money may weaken their motivation by depreciating or “crowding out” their intrinsic interest or commitment.” — Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Money Can’t Buy You Happiness

When we begin pursuing an activity primarily for money or other external gain, we risk losing touch with the simple joy of the activity itself as it gradually transforms from something we love into a chore.

Why does this happen?

One reason might be that when we receive compensation for an activity, we sometimes feel a loss of autonomy. It’s as if our behaviour is no longer driven by our own choices but by an external force.

When the external force is removed and we’re no longer bound to the activity, we choose to look elsewhere to enjoy our freedom, despite the joy it once generated.

Another possibility is what psychologists call the ‘overjustification effect’—when we start getting paid to do something, we start to attribute our own motivation to the payment. In effect, we think to ourselves ‘I do this for the money,’ and forget what it was like to do it for love.

Incentivizing activities isn’t inherently bad, it can motivate us to tackle tasks we might otherwise avoid. But when we receive payment for activities we genuinely enjoy, there’s a risk of tarnishing that very enjoyment.

“Rewards do not undermine people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined.” —Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Not everything should be evaluated through the economic lens, not everything requires a measurable exchange value.

Have you ever pondered the potential earnings you’re missing out on when you take a walk or go for a swim? Even your free time can be corrupted when viewed solely in economic terms.

So, keep some aspects of your life untouched by economic considerations.

We need hobbies and activities we do for the pure joy they bring, no matter how simple they are. Or to be willing to help others without getting something in return.

Of course, if your hobby becomes your profession, that can be a remarkable achievement—many people work jobs they dislike. But it’s essential to reflect on your values and experiences and find a way to savour not just the economic benefits but the intrinsic rewards too.

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