At Estonia's Bank Of Happiness, Kindness Is The Currency

Jul 18, 2013
Originally published on July 18, 2013 10:54 am

Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is considered one of the world's leading "smart" cities, where the government and businesses alike rely heavily on computer technology.

But one group in the Estonian capital is using the Internet for something completely different: an online forum that markets good deeds.

It's called the Bank of Happiness, but it doesn't involve money or credit. Founded five years ago in this Baltic city, it's a forum in which more than 2,000 civic-minded individuals from Estonia and other countries connect to offer or receive services free of charge.

The site carries more than 500 ads in English, German and Estonian from people offering or seeking all kinds of things, including tutoring, tips on baking and business, and even juggling lessons. The website is also translated into French and Spanish.

Founder Airi Kivi says the goal is to make people think and act with their hearts.

"I thought, 'We need something like this Bank of Happiness, where people can meet each other and do something cool,' " says the 39-year-old Kivi, who is a family therapist and clinical psychologist.

The fact that the Estonian economy was in shambles at the time — 2008 — didn't factor into her decision, Kivi says.

"But a little bit later, I thought, 'Wow, [the] Bank of Happiness is perfect for this economic crisis and a lot of people are unemployed and they can use our bank,' " she adds.

So how does it work? It's simple: You register using your real name and post what you are offering or what your need is, as long as it doesn't involve cash or products.

The site relies on members to report violators, of which there have been few, Kivi says.

As a masseuse, Tallinn resident Terge Reintem has one of the more popular postings on the bank. One of her clients is Kivi.

She pays Reintem with a "thank you." Kivi says a hug or box of chocolates is also acceptable tender as long as it's heartfelt and not mandated.

"This is something that is very important to us, that we don't have any exact credit or measures that you gave 10 times massage and now you have 10 points," the founder explains.

Reintem says that's fine with her. She says she signed up when she was unemployed because she needed to practice her skills.

She says she stayed on even after finding a new job because it feels good to volunteer.

"If I discover a new technique, I can practice them on my bank clients first," Reintem says, adding they are often nicer than the paying ones.

Member Veronika Davel says she was also unemployed when she joined. She unknowingly violated the rules with her first request when she asked for a product: a computer because the CD player on hers had broken.

Nevertheless, a bank member responded and gave her a used one. Davel says she later re-gifted it to a 13-year-old boy.

"Later, I didn't need it because my parents gave me a gift, and so I could make some child happy, because he wanted to have a computer to play games and he was thrilled to have a new computer," Davel says.

But she wanted to do more and began offering services of her own on the bank's website.

"The main thing I really could offer was English, to study English," Davel explains. "Also, a young girl who makes massages, she needed translation, needed to have better English for her job."

The site has many more offers of help than requests for it. That's as it should be, Kivi says, adding that the bigger reward comes from giving.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now, to a very different kind of bank. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson brings us the story of a bank in Estonia where the only currency is kindness.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: As an international correspondent who spends a lot of times in conflict zones, I've seen the worst of human nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

NELSON: There's the war in Afghanistan with its barrage of firefights and roadside bombs or the frontlines of the Egyptian revolution...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTING)

NELSON: ...with its deadly clashes between police and protesters. Hate, anger and greed abound in these places, yet occasionally you see unexpected altruism.

Take, for example, the morning after one of the worst nights of fighting in Cairo. Dozens of Egyptians showed up in Tahrir Square with brooms and trash bags to clean up broken glass, spent rounds and tear gas cans and blackened rubble. Other volunteers formed a cordon around the Egyptian Museum to protect it from looters. Most didn't know each other and no one had asked them to come. None of them sought praise or money. Theirs were spontaneous acts of kindness.

So when I heard last month about an Estonian online forum that markets good deeds, I was intrigued. It's called the Bank of Happiness but it doesn't involve money or credit. Founded five years ago in Tallinn, it's a forum in which more than 2,000 civic-minded individuals from Estonia and other countries connect to offer help or receive it, all of it for free. There are more than 500 ads in English, German and Estonian from people offering or seeking all sorts of things, including tutoring, tips on baking and business, and even juggling lessons. The website is also translated into French and Spanish.

Founder Airi Kivi says the goal is to make people think and act with their hearts.

AIRI KIVI: I don't know. I thought we need something like this, Bank of Happiness. People can meet each other and do something cool.

NELSON: She says the fact that the Estonian economy was in shambles at the time didn't factor into her decision.

KIVI: But a little bit later, I thought, wow, Bank of Happiness is perfect for this economic crisis and a lot of people are unemployed and they can use our bank.

NELSON: So how does it work? It's simple: You register using your real name and post what you are offering or what your need is, as long as they don't involve cash or products. The site relies on members to report violators. Kivi says there have been few. Estonians like Terge Reintem began signing up. Hers is one of the more popular postings on the bank. She gives massages. One of her clients is Kivi. What does the masseuse get for her trouble? A thank you, Kivi says, adding that a hug or box of chocolates is also acceptable tender as long as it's heartfelt and not mandated.

KIVI: This is something that is very important to us, that we don't have any exact credits or measures that say you gave 10 times massage and now you have 10 points. Reintem says that's fine with her.

TERGE REINTEM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The masseuse says she signed up because she was unemployed and needed to practice her skills. Reintem adds that she's since found a job but continues to offer her services on the website because it feels good to volunteer. Member Weronika Davel was also unemployed when she joined. She unknowingly violated the rules with her first request. She asked for a product - a computer because the CD player on hers had broken.

Davel says she eventually re-gifted the used one she received from a bank to a 13-year-old boy.

WERONIKA DAVEL: Later, I didn't need it because my parents gave me a gift, and so I could make some child happy, because he wanted to have a computer to play games and he was thrilled to have a new computer.

NELSON: But Davel wanted to do more and began offering to help people through the Happiness Bank.

DAVEL: The main thing I really could offer was English, to study English. Also, a young girl who makes massages, she needed translation, needed to have better English for her job.

NELSON: The Bank's founder, Airi Kivi, says the site has many more offers of help than requests for it. She adds, that's as it should be because the bigger reward comes from giving. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.