What you can buy with $1,000 worth of soup.

The money dripped away $20-$100 at a time. It manifested as chicken stock, coconut milk, celery, cashew butter, cheap wine, potatoes– endless potatoes — and lately, name tags.

I oh-so-creatively call it “Soup Night.” Once per month I make soup from scratch. I invite over a hodgepodge of friends, people I wish were friends, professional connections, and an occasional Uber driver. Sometimes 5 people come, sometimes 45. We eat the soup.

Last Thursday marked the 15th Soup Night and the point where I estimate I’ve surpassed $1,000 in spending. Without fail, the soup is not ready on time. Also without fail, as I distractedly swirl my beloved immersion blender in my tainted tinny pot, attacking the last stubborn turnips, someone is always in the kitchen asking me —

“So why do you do this?”

The event has a romantic origin story. “I was traveling across the Eastern Sierra Nevada by bicycle,” I say. “I met this couple that were just so content they seemed to radiate wisdom. You don’t meet people like that very often. I asked them what they wish they had known at my age and the man said if he had pick one thing, it would be this: Take the time to develop rituals in your life.”

In other words, Soup Night started because at the low point of a quarter-life crisis I was desperate for an answer I could cling to. It’s worked out in ways I never could have planned for:

— I got to know the four closest friends I’ve ever had.

— I found a business partner..

— I’ve scored a future invite to the undoubtedly cool rock-climber wedding of two people who fell in love while gazing into each other’s eyes over my gazpacho.

And yet… I’m an oddly frugal person. I drive a dented 1993 Volvo. I don’t have a real mattress because it always seemed frivolous to buy one. It should bother me that I can think of 12 other ways those things could have happened that do not involve $1,000 (or, for that matter, cleaning my house). On a surface level, this experiment has run its course and the “investment” has a questionable ROI. The better question is, why am I still doing this?

Like much of my generation, I opt for “instant gratification” ways of qualifying myself as a decent human. I donate here and there, fund the occasional crowdfunding campaign and collect cans for the homeless shelter. Consistently putting time and even mild labor into something is a whole different story. It’s not just me — Volunteering rates across the US are steadily dropping.

Which, by the way, makes us suckers. Google “What Makes People Happy,” and the first articles that pop up unanimously suggest strong social relationships and giving to others (see here, here, here, here, here, or this cheesy video here). The latter begets the former.

So here’s my secret: Each Soup Night, I believe I become an incrementally better person. It’s the time I intentionally set aside to give to those in my life and expect nothing to come of it. Yes, there are greater causes and hungrier people I could serve. I’m not saving the world here. Catalyzing conversation among people with different political beliefs is a rare good these days, but it doesn’t get you a tax write-off. Perhaps it is the unglamorous nature of it that makes it transformative.

As Soup Night has become part of my identity, so too has a different mindset. With increasing frequency, I see myself engaging with people not by waiting for entertainment (which I suggest is our default), but by asking myself how I can affirm or give to the person in front of me. My brain rewires with each empty bowl I scrub clean.

So what can you buy with $1,000 worth of soup? For me, character.

With love, from Soup Night.