The Paying it Forward Meaning and the Link to Altruism

Paying it Forward Meaning

For many people, the term “Pay it Forward” isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s been around already for quite some time and, most who know about it—know what it’s all about. Whether people are referring to, Pay it Forward the 2000 film with Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. Pay it Forward the novel authored by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Or Pay it Forward the very idea and concept as it’s known as today. The central premise of the paying it forward meaning is based on the same thing—the power of giving to others.

In our previous article, we discussed the concept of altruism. Acts of Selflessness which put the good of others before the good of oneself. Continuing along this vein, here, we’ll explore deeper into one particular method often used in an attempt to practice true altruism. This act is, of course, labeled as “Paying it Forward.”

What is Paying it Forward?

Contrary to what some believe, the concept known as “pay it forward” has been around for millennia. The idea forming an essential part of the Ancient Greek comedy Dyskolos. The origins of the precise phrase “pay it forward” are shrouded in a little mystery. But, most people today will know it from the 2000 book and film Pay it Forward. 

The plot starts out where a young boy, Trevor, puts a special kind of social project into action for a school assignment. Trevor plans to do three favors for other people. In turn, each of those people has to do favors for three more people. Those people, then, have to do three more favors—and so on and so forth. The film’s tagline sums up the whole idea in a very simple way:

“When someone does you a big favor, don’t pay it back—pay it forward.”

The paying it forward meaning has, therefore, come to be known as repaying a kindness to someone other than the person who paid the original kindness for you. If for example, your best friend helps you move, you don’t return the favor. Instead, you go mow your neighbor’s lawn. Another example might be, if your dad gives you money to help you buy a car, you don’t then give him something. Rather, you would volunteer to help build a home for someone in need. Same with if your boyfriend/girlfriend gives you flowers. Instead of giving back something in return, you would pay it forward by giving baked cookies to a friend.

What does it have to do with Altruism?

In the previous article, we touched on the idea of reciprocal altruism. Selfless deeds undertaken with the expectation of something in return. When someone does something nice for you, you want to do something nice back to show your gratitude. It’s only natural! While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it can sometimes turn what should be a selfless act into something a little more selfish.

For instance, if you’re giving something or doing something for someone else because you know (or hope!) that you’ll get something back in return, what you’re doing isn’t truly altruistic. To show an act of altruism, you have to expect nothing in return. We then hope, however, that the person on the receiving end, will continue the string of altruism by paying it forward. By doing your selfless good deed, you kick off (or continue on) a chain of selfless good deeds that will go on to do good for many, many more people.

How You can Pay it Forward

Already here, I’ve given you a few basic examples to work with. But, to help spark some inspiration and motivation—here’s a good place to start. In 2007, Blake Beattie of Australia started Pay it Forward Day, which is now celebrated on April 28th by seventy-nine countries. This coming year, the event’s organizers, behind this celebration of altruism, hope to inspire ten million acts of kindness around the world.

So how about making yourself part of that ten million? If you check out their website, you’ll find more ideas about all sorts of ways you can pay it forward. Just remember, it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Rather, it can be something as simple as paying for someone else’s coffee. Giving up your seat on the bus or tram. Or, listening to someone’s idea. Spending a little money or time on an unsuspecting person can often be enough to put a smile on their face for the rest of the day.

Feel like you need a little reminder to pay it forward? Why not order a bracelet from the Pay it Forward Foundation? The foundation is a nonprofit organization, originally founded by the author of the Pay it Forward book. They provide copies of the book to teachers and other educators. Helping to spread the message of repaying the kindness by doing good deeds for others. A bracelet might just help be a reminder to pay it forward.

Examples of Paying it Forward

As Business guru, Nick Unsworth points out in a YouTube video, “At the end of the day, our goal is not only to give to other people but to inspire this little ripple… to create this ripple effect.” In the video, Nick’s shown going through a drive-thru and paying for the order of the people behind.

Nick’s website, Life on Fire, hosts a feature called “Pay it Forward Friday”, which is a reminder for us to practice random acts of kindness. Acts to inspire others to spread that kindness, generosity, and consideration around.


See alsoWhat is Altruism? Does it Really Exist?


Make Your Mark!

A final note about the meaning of Paying it Forward and Altruism. Although paying it forward is synonymous with Kindness it’s worth mentioning that Kindness isn’t karma. It’s not something you should keep reaping and sowing.

Paying it forward should be a pure act of selflessness that comes from the heart.

Paying it forward each and every day in some way, large or small—is a fantastic way to promote that idea. So go on, the next time a friend or family member gives you a gift or does you a favor, don’t pay it back—pay it forward. Let’s spread the goodwill and do our part to make the world just a little bit better for one another!