The Flow: when cooperation makes you happy

Card's author : Jean-Michel Cornu
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description :

Developping intrinsic motivations

A way of encouraging gift is to develop motivation. Not the intrinsic motivation as seen before (reciprocal gift-giving practices, social recognition), but rather an intrinsic motivation that expects nothing from the outside (self-esteem, self-realization). It is therefore not a free gift but rather a sincere gift, in the sense that there is no profit-sharing ( a "profit in ...") but rather a profit for "1. However, in the theory of self-determination, this distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic is rather seen as a continuum 2.

Intrinsic motivations determined by pleasure and a feeling of autonomy 3" highly interest modern economy. Among them, self-esteem is a driving force for charity (with social recognition which is an extrinsic motivation). Many anonymous donors consider that they are lucky enough to have what they have and that sharing with less lucky people is a good thing, agreeing then with their own values.These later can be personal or cultural. It is then possible to influence on the group's values when you want to implement a system of gift. Building a system of values occurs step by step and may punctually come up to a divergence between teh values of the individual the group's. On the contrary, the system of value is also constituent of the group4, inciting those who recognize themselves there to join the group and rejecting sometimes those who have different values. Another kind of intrinsic motivation is "self-fulfilling. Surveys in psychology have shown that we reach a state of happiness, named "state of flow", when we are completely absorbed in what we are doing. Could we drown into donation to others and find a big happiness in it?

To know more: state of flow5

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the figureheads of positive psychology6, got interested in the 70s in people who dedicated much time and energy to various activities just for the pleasure of it, with no expectations in term of bonuses such as money or social recognition (chess players, climbers, dansers for example). His observations led him to the conclusion that happiness occured when " we gave the best of ourselves". He depicted a principle of optimum experience, a state of flow where we were completely involved in what we were doing. This could be a valuing activity like writing a book, climbing a mountain or a simple everyday's life activity in which we had found an interest to get fully involved in. This could even concern activities considered as chores (washing up, ironing, ect.). Thanks to testimonies and experiences, Csikszentmihalyi has identified several peculiarities describing the state of flow7.
1 – High grade of concentration over a limited field of consciousness (hyperfocus), absence of diversion ;
2 – Loss of the sense of self-consciousness, disappearance of the distance between the subject and the object; ;
3 - Distorsion of the perception of time ;
4 – Direct and immediate feedback. Success and failures along the process are immediatly pointed out and the behavior is adapted according to the situation ;
5 – Feeling of control over oneself and over the environment.

Michael Norton, professor of Harvard Business School shows how happiness can be linked with the act of giving, including money8. He directed a survey on the campus of Vancouver in British Columbia in which he asked students how much they were happy and by giving them an envelope. There was money in it, 5$ or 20$ according to students and also a card indicating for half of the students: "until 5:00 pm today, spend this money on yourself" and for the other half " until 5:00 pm today, spend this money on someone else". At the end of the day, the researchers asked the students what they had spent their money on and how happy they felt now. They noticed that those whom had spent money on others were happier than those whom had spent it on themselves, and this independantly from the amount spent. Michael Norton led a similar study in Ouganda and noticed that the results were the same. To extand the research he ordered a poll to the Gallup Institute asking two questions: "Have you given money to a charity lately ?" and "How happy are you with your life in the whole ?". In a very great majority of countries both answers are positively correlated: giving makes happier.

But there is a difficulty to reach happiness and the state of flow. We tend to favor passive activities (like watching TV...) that gives us a partial but immediate satisfaction, rather than active activities that will make us happy but which need an effort initially. How can we go beyond this "barrier of effort"? The one who enjoys running suffered initially ; the musician had to train sometimes for years before being able to play a whole piece of music, even compose himself ; the simple fact of enjoying some good time with friends requires to go out... At least, it is important to live once the experience before realizing that generates pleasure.

Live a small irreversible experience

To go beyond this "barrier of effort" and find happiness in a state of flow, it can be necessary to live "a small irreversible experience9", the one that will deeply change our point of view by opening perspectives that seemed impossible. Nipun Mehta, founder of, a project incubator at the crossing of volunteering, technology and gift economy, quotes a true story that took place on Xmas day in Mexico. It is a good example of the difference between the idea we have of a situation and the happiness it can provide us 10. "A father and his son are seating by a fir. A slum kid comes along. The father turns to his son and tells him to give him one of his toys. The son is reluctant of course but when he understands that his father is serious, he gets hold on one of his toy, the one he likes less, and gets ready in giving it. But his father says: "Son, give your favorite toy". Albeit initially reluctant, the kid ends up doing what he is told. When he is back, the father thinks he must congratulate his son and acknowledge the sacrifice done by his son. But surprisingly, the kid comes back jumping with joy, looks at his father and says: "Dad, it was incredible ! Can I do it again ?

The acts we do are often done acording to our perception of things, and this perceptio independant from reality depends on environment, on what we hear around us about the topic, etc. Experimental economy is interested in individual and collective behaviors. We have seen an exxample of it with the cumulative prospect theory 11 which shows how much we hate risk. Jacques Lecomte12, professor of psychology of Nanterre's University and of the Institut Catholique de Paris proposes other examples with a particular experience of self-fulfilling prediction, an assertion which modifies behavior only because it is broadcast and so becomes true. In an experience, an experimenter gives the same rules to all participants but tells half the group that they are going to play "the Wall Street game" and to the other half "the game of community". The subjects are twice more numerous to cooperate in the second case ! So, we are predisposed at the same time to cooperation and to competition. But there is a subtlety which Jacques Lecomte enhances: we are predisposed and not predestined for one or for the other. The environment switches us in one mode or the other. The highly developed by men mecanisms of mimicries help to spread self-fulfilling predictions, whether altruistic or selfish...

There are other mecanisms to live first gift experiences. In the example of "Pay-it forward" seen in the previous chapter, the involvment of the beneficiary of a gift to give in his turn to other people "forward" is not a warranty that he will do it. But this promise increases the chance that new gifts will be done. In his presentation to TEDx13, Nipun Mehta presents the "Karma restaurant" in Washington DC. It's a restaurant totally normal where you can eat, but it is kept by volunteers and most of all, at the end of the meal, you get a 0$ bill explaining: "in a spirit of generosity, somebody who came before you donated for this meal. We hope that you will continue the chain by giving too! To pay for a future guest you can leave an anonymous contribution in this enveloppe. Thank you !" Here we are in a Pay-it forward type of action14. Most people accept to give and even if some people are "stowaways ", the fact that giving to others is easier than giving to ourselves has allowed this restaurant to live for over three years. Today, other restaurants of this kind open. The initiative of a former volunteer of the Karma restaurant, Minah Jung has even allowed to evaluate how much we give for others compared to what we are ready to give to ourselves15. She joined professor Leif Nelson of the Haas Business School in Berkeley to make an experimentation in a museum where the entrance fee costs 1$. In a first experience, they left a box were visitors could leave what they wanted. The average amount was of 1,33 $, higher than the usual entrance fee. When they left someone to collect the fees the visitors were ready to pay, the average amount went up to 2$. But most of all, when visitors were told that the entrance was free for them but that they had to pay for the visitor after them, then the average amount of gifts was 3$, three times more than the usual entrance fee ! We are more generous for others than for ourselves...

The oxytocin track to favor our tendency in cooperation ?

Some time ago, an hormone created a great interest in those who wanted to develop cooperation and gift: oxytocin. This little chain of 9 amino acids seems to be adorned with all the vertues16. It interfers in the developing of relationships between mother and child, in faithfulness in couples, and in numerous social behaviors such as confidence, development of empathy, cooperation and altruism. The neuro-economist Paul Zak has even named it the "moral molecule 17". We produce oxytocin when we touch someone (as in handshakes) and even more when we kiss. This hormone, contrary to many others, has no regulating plan and its production can peak highly especially during an orgasm. But this molecule has side effects18. It can cause favoritism to people from you own group against people who don't belong to it19 and can even encourage to desire and be delighted at the misfortune of others20. Is oxytocin the hormone which eases gift or rejection? We will have to go a little further to understand it. In many ways this hormone is different from others. Contrary to others, it has more than two or three effects and takes part in many other situations. It enables the contraction of the cervix during birth, it causes the secretion of milk to allow breastfeeding, it causes erection in men (viagra affects the secretion of oxytocin) and causes a state of pleasure in numerous cases : orgasm but also in a more reduced way when we act in a cooperative way. All these effects may seem heterogeneous even contradictory. To find a coherence in them, it is necessary to notice as the chemist Marcel Hiberrt does21, that contrary to other hormones which enable the individual's survival, oxytocin enables the specie's survival22. It enables reproduction, the care of youngsters and babies, cooperation with members of our league, but also to distinguish those who are inside our group from those who are outside. Then the oxytocin's action depends on environment and one of the tracks to explain its running would be that it focuses our attention on social signals.23. Taking these reservations into account, we could imagine nevertheless the gift of oxytocin as suggested by some. But if a simple handshake helps the production of oxytocin, it's not always easy for contributors to share a long kiss in order to provoke a peak of the hormone ! A nasal spray can be used and studies have shown that it developed confidence 24 But as Marcel Hibert says, how do you spray the bottom of your banker's nose ! Much more important is the fact that if only one of the contributor inhales oxytocin, and not the other, can cause numerous drifts and raises ethical questions. To develop our propensity to give, we had better stick to the natural and reverse production of oxytocin: a simple meeting, a handshake, contact, even danse. It's also the case with "free hugs25" (a movement that has developed worldwide since 2004 where people offer hugs to people in a public place ). The "free hug" generates a peak of oxytocin and makes us happy and furthermore it is symmetric: you can't give a hug without sharing it...

This article is excerpted from the book Benefit from the gift, for yourself, for society, for the economy (Tirer bénéfice du don, pour soi, pour la société, pour l'économie)
The original edition of this book was published in French
Copyright © 2013 FYP Éditions
Original title: Tirer bénéfice du don, pour soi, pour la société, pour l'économie
A work from the collection "Stimulo".
(but this article is licensed under CC-BY-SA)

1 CORNU, Jean-Michel. Tirer bénéfice du don, pour soi, pour la société, pour l’économie [online]. Limoges, France : FYP, 2013. Stimulo, ISSN 2265-7754. ISBN 978-2-916571-87-4. Available from:
2 DECI, Edward L. and RYAN, Richard M. (eds.). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, Royaume-Uni : The University of Rochester Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58046-108-5.
3 Motivation. Wikipédia [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
4 See in particular the works of Elinor Omstrom, "Nobel Price of Economy" in 2009 for her works on the governance of commons by communities : EYCHENNE, Fabien. Notions de base - Annexe 7 - E. Ostrom : la gouvernance des biens communs. Réseau social de la Fing [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
5 CORNU, Jean-Michel. La monnaie, et après ? guides des nouveaux échanges pour le XXIe siècle. Limoges : FYP éd., 2012. ISBN 9782916571775 2916571779.
6 CSÍKSZENTMIHÁLYI, Mihály and SERVAN-SCHREIBER, David. Vivre: la psychologie du bonheur. Paris, France : Pocket, 2005. Pocket. Évolution, ISSN 1639-5727Presses pocket (Paris), ISSN 0244-6405, 12335. ISBN 978-2-266-16913-4.
7 Flow (psychologie). Wikipédia [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
8 Michael Norton : Comment acheter le bonheur | Video on Ted : Ideas worth spreading [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
9 The word is from Laurent Marseault of Outils Réseaux
10 Pay it forward: Nipun Mehta @ TEDxGoldenGateED. Ted : Ideas worth spreading [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
11 CORNU, Jean-Michel. Le taux de satisfaction des besoins réels identifiés. In : Tirer bénéfice du don, pour soi, pour la société, pour l’économie [online]. Limoges, France : FYP, 2013. Stimulo, ISSN 2265-7754. ISBN 978-2-916571-87-4. Available from:
12 LECOMTE, Jacques. La bonté humaine: altruisme, empathie, générosité. Paris, France : O. Jacob, 2012. ISBN 978-2-7381-2710-5.
13 NIPUN, Mehta. TEDxBerkeley - Designing For Generosity.  YouTube [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
14 CORNU, Jean-Michel. Le don plus efficace que l’échange ? In : Tirer bénéfice du don, pour soi, pour la société, pour l’économie [online]. Limoges, France : FYP, 2013. Stimulo, ISSN 2265-7754. ISBN 978-2-916571-87-4. Available from:
15 NIPUN, Mehta. TEDxBerkeley - Designing For Generosity.  YouTube [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
16 DVORSKY, George. 10 Reasons Why Oxytocin Is The Most Amazing Molecule In The World. io9 [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
17 ZAK, Paul J. The moral molecule: The source of love and prosperity. Random House, 2012.
18 YONG, Ed. Non, l’ocytocine n’est pas la molécule de l’amour et de la morale. GALLAIRE, Fabienne (tran.), slate [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
19 DE DREU, Carsten KW, GREER, Lindred L., VAN KLEEF, Gerben A., SHALVI, Shaul and HANDGRAAF, Michel JJ. Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [online]. 2011. Vol. 108, no. 4, p. 1262–1266. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
20 SHAMAY-TSOORY, Simone G., FISCHER, Meytal, DVASH, Jonathan, HARARI, Hagai, PERACH-BLOOM, Nufar and LEVKOVITZ, Yechiel. Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating). Biological psychiatry [online]. 2009. Vol. 66, no. 9, p. 864–870. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
21 See particularly : La chimie de l’amour - Marcel Hibert - Université de tous les savoirs - Vidéo - Canal-U [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
22 Another hormone, vasopressin, also greatly contributed to the survival of the species, but with an opposite strategy than oxytocin. Vasopressin control system fight or flight while oxytocin calms and controls the type contact. The first reduces the level of consciousness, while the second could develop attention to social signals.
23 BARTZ, Jennifer A., ZAKI, Jamil, BOLGER, Niall and OCHSNER, Kevin N. Social effects of oxytocin in humans: context and person matter. Trends in cognitive sciences [online]. 2011. Vol. 15, no. 7, p. 301–309. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
24 KOSFELD, Michael, HEINRICHS, Markus, ZAK, Paul J., FISCHBACHER, Urs and FEHR, Ernst. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature [online]. 2005. Vol. 435, no. 7042, p. 673–676. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:
25 Official Home of the Free Hugs Campaign. [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from: