Lessons from a pay-it-forward restaurant: the importance of gratitude

At the Karma Kitchen, people enjoy a meal that’s already paid for — and are invited to continue the chain of generosity. In the process, organizers and participants alike learn the transforming power of gratitude.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/File
Japanese youths figure skate at a gala exhibition in Sendai, Japan, in November 2012 to express gratitude for the world's support after a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit their country. In Berkeley, Calif., the Karma Kitchen restaurant bases its business on the concept of gratitude. Each visitor can pay nothing or voluntarily pay for a meal for a future guest.

Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu; a place where the meal is served as a gift by volunteers, and at the end of it guests receive a bill for a total of $0.00.

The bill comes with a note that explains their meal was a gift from someone who came before them. If they wish to pay it forward, they can make a contribution for someone who comes after them and help keep the circle going. This restaurant is called Karma Kitchen—and it actually exists. And over the years, running this pay-it-forward restaurant has taught us at KindSpring.org a great deal about gratitude.

It baffles people to know that Karma Kitchen has no tracking systems—we don’t monitor how much individual tables receive and how much they give. Instead, we just focus on giving everyone a genuine experience of generosity.

When we started in 2007 in Berkeley, Calif., we had no idea whether we would sink or float. But more than six years later Karma Kitchen is still going strong. It has served more than 30,000 meals and now has chapters in half-a-dozen cities around the world. And it is all sustained by gratitude.

Karma Kitchen works on the deceptively simple premise that the heart that fills, spills. The nature of gratitude is to overflow its banks and circulate. It does not stand still. But remove that ineffable quality from the equation, and the virtuous cycle breaks down.

The sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude "the moral memory of mankind." It serves to connect us to each other in small, real, and human ways. Remove it from the fabric of our lives, and all relationship becomes an endless series of soulless transactions. We become more prone to a sense of entitlement and less available to a sense of life’s wonder and mystery.  

But when we receive something as a gift, as opposed to a purchase, we drop out of our patterns of constant calculation. We step out of the realm of price tags and into the realm of the priceless. This is an important shift.

At Karma Kitchen, the fact that there is no way to know who in the chain before you paid for your meal—and no way of knowing who exactly will receive your contribution—makes it quietly revolutionary. It gently shakes people out of our habitual quid pro quo mindset. It is a system that transcends any one person’s control and invites trust in the cycle of the whole.

Gratitude is what bolsters the spirit to take that leap of faith. In this context every contribution becomes an act of profound trust. That kind of trust builds a web of resilience. It is what turns a group of people into an actual community.

Another lesson we’ve learned at Karma Kitchen is that there is a subtle but important difference between interactions dictated by a sense of obligation or guilt and those that are catalyzed by gratitude. With obligation or guilt there is a sense of indebtedness. It is a disempowering state.

Gratitude is the opposite. It is a feeling with wings, joyful and spirited. And, paradoxically, it is the act of receiving with gratitude that puts us back in touch with our own boundless capacity to give.

Gratitude is a creative state. At Karma Kitchen, guests and volunteers alike have illustrated this fact in myriad ways. In addition to the monetary contributions from guests that keep the wheels of the restaurant turning, Karma Kitchen has witnessed thousands of other spontaneous offerings—everything from songs, poems, and artwork to exquisite magazines and inspiring DVDs that are made available to all on our "Kindness Table."

But perhaps even more important than what transpires at the restaurant is what happens outside its walls. Gratitude does not recognize strict boundaries, and once ignited it asserts itself in the rhythm of our daily lives. It makes us kinder and more compassionate, more willing and ready to act on our impulses for good.

As one guest-turned-volunteer put it, “I’ve realized Karma Kitchen has turned me into the kind of person who now stops when I see someone with a flat tire on the highway.”

There’s more to it. Science is now showing us that gratitude can positively influence our health, happiness, energy levels, and longevity. A growing number of studies indicate that gratitude is a muscle that can be exercised and built up. Simple interventions like maintaining a journal of what you're thankful for have been demonstrated to have a deep impact. The key lies in sharpening our awareness and tuning in to the gifts that we hold in each moment.

So this November, KindSpring.org and YES! Magazine are launching a 21-Day Gratitude Challenge. Thousands of people across the world have already signed up and committed to a daily practice of gratitude every day for 21 days straight, culminating on Thanksgiving Day. When you join us, you join a community that shares insights, support, and experiences as we take on this journey together.

Karma Kitchen has taught us repeatedly that gratitude is not inert. It does not sit at the bottom of the lake like a pebble and daydream. It rises like a small sun and shines forth without scheming. And, like a sun, it gives and makes things grow.

Next week, let's rise and shine together—with gratitude.

Sign up for the 21-Day Gratitude Challenge here.

• Pavithra Mehta wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Pavithra is a co-architect of ServiceSpace.org and one of the creative forces behind KindSpring.org. She is also the co-author of "Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion."

This article originally appeared at YES! Magazine.

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