This week I went to the Action for Happiness talk with Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist Monk, Photographer and Author. He is on his book tour talking about his new book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. I was very excited to have the opportunity to see him in London and I even got a photo with him at the end :)) Most people bought the book and had it signed, I decided at the end I wanted a photo, I like to be different!
I waited alone in the queue of 800 plus people waiting to go in to see Matthieu Ricard. I thought I might see a few people I know (most of the people I did know where inside volunteering, Shamash Alidina, Manuel Kraus, Jo Marshall). I waited and what struck me, me included was that nobody was talking to each other. I thought people at an event on happiness and altruism might be a bit more friendly and talkative. I was wrong most people looked tired and serious. Until I spotted one person I met 2 weeks ago at the Wake Up and Heart of London Sangha event for entrepreneurs. I invited him to join the queue with me and he offered me his tea, which was very kind I thought because I did actually want some tea.
There were a lot of people at the event, people needed to be seated upstairs in the venue. The sound upstairs was not working so people came downstairs. An observation I made was, again this was a talk about altruism, helping others. Most people seemed to be in their own worlds, a few people a guy that volunteers for Positive news and another lady were bringing chairs out for extra people to be seated. I decided to help them and ask people to move inside to the sides to make more room. Leadership is something you do before waiting to be asked to do it, I was not asked to help, but I could see there was a need to make people more comfortable. Most of us are so absorbed in our own problems, inner world, we do not see around us.
This week I am going to be a little lazy and share the transcript with you from Matthieu’s Ted talk, he said some of the same stuff at the talk I went to. I have highlighted some key points in bold if you want to scan the transcript.
So we humans have an extraordinary potential for goodness, but also an immense power to do harm. Any tool can be used to build or to destroy. That all depends on our motivation. Therefore, it is all the more important to foster an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one.
So now we indeed are facing many challenges in our times. Those could be personal challenges. Our own mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. There’s also societal challenges: poverty in the midst of plenty, inequalities, conflict, injustice. And then there are the new challenges, which we don’t expect. Ten thousand years ago, there were about five million human beings on Earth. Whatever they could do, the Earth’s resilience would soon heal human activities. After the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, that’s not the same anymore. We are now the major agent of impact on our Earth. We enter the Anthropocene, the era of human beings. So in a way, if we were to say we need to continue this endless growth, endless use of material resources, it’s like if this man was saying — and I heard a former head of state, I won’t mention who, saying — “Five years ago, we were at the edge of the precipice. Today we made a big step forward.” So this edge is the same that has been defined by scientists as the planetary boundaries. And within those boundaries, they can carry a number of factors. We can still prosper, humanity can still prosper for 150,000 years if we keep the same stability of climate as in the Holocene for the last 10,000 years. But this depends on choosing a voluntary simplicity, growing qualitatively, not quantitatively.
So in 1900, as you can see, we were well within the limits of safety. Now, in 1950 came the great acceleration. Now hold your breath, not too long, to imagine what comes next. Now we have vastly overrun some of the planetary boundaries. Just to take biodiversity, at the current rate, by 2050, 30 percent of all species on Earth will have disappeared. Even if we keep their DNA in some fridge, that’s not going to be reversible. So here I am sitting in front of a 7,000-meter-high, 21,000-foot glacier in Bhutan. At the Third Pole, 2,000 glaciers are melting fast, faster than the Arctic.
So what can we do in that situation? Well, however complex politically, economically, scientifically the question of the environment is, it simply boils down to a question of altruism versus selfishness. I’m a Marxist of the Groucho tendency. (Laughter) Groucho Marx said, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” (Laughter) Unfortunately, I heard the billionaire Steve Forbes, on Fox News, saying exactly the same thing, but seriously. He was told about the rise of the ocean, and he said, “I find it absurd to change my behavior today for something that will happen in a hundred years.” So if you don’t care for future generations, just go for it.
So one of the main challenges of our times is to reconcile three time scales: the short term of the economy, the ups and downs of the stock market, the end-of-the-year accounts; the midterm of the quality of life — what is the quality every moment of our life, over 10 years and 20 years? — and the long term of the environment. When the environmentalists speak with economists, it’s like a schizophrenic dialogue, completely incoherent. They don’t speak the same language. Now, for the last 10 years, I went around the world meeting economists, scientists, neuroscientists, environmentalists, philosophers, thinkers in the Himalayas, all over the place. It seems to me, there’s only one concept that can reconcile those three time scales. It is simply having more consideration for others. If you have more consideration for others, you will have a caring economics, where finance is at the service of society and not society at the service of finance. You will not play at the casino with the resources that people have entrusted you with. If you have more consideration for others, you will make sure that you remedy inequality, that you bring some kind of well-being within society, in education, at the workplace. Otherwise, a nation that is the most powerful and the richest but everyone is miserable, what’s the point? And if you have more consideration for others, you are not going to ransack that planet that we have and at the current rate, we don’t have three planets to continue that way.
So the question is, okay, altruism is the answer, it’s not just a novel ideal, but can it be a real, pragmatic solution? And first of all, does it exist, true altruism, or are we so selfish? So some philosophers thought we were irredeemably selfish. But are we really all just like rascals? That’s good news, isn’t it? Many philosophers, like Hobbes, have said so. But not everyone looks like a rascal. Or is man a wolf for man? But this guy doesn’t seem too bad. He’s one of my friends in Tibet. He’s very kind. So now, we love cooperation. There’s no better joy than working together, is there? And then not only humans. Then, of course, there’s the struggle for life, the survival of the fittest, social Darwinism. But in evolution, cooperation — though competition exists, of course — cooperation has to be much more creative to go to increased levels of complexity. We are super-cooperators and we should even go further.
So now, on top of that, the quality of human relationships. The OECD did a survey among 10 factors, including income, everything. The first one that people said, that’s the main thing for my happiness, is quality of social relationships. Not only in humans. And look at those great-grandmothers. So now, this idea that if we go deep within, we are irredeemably selfish, this is armchair science. There is not a single sociological study, psychological study, that’s ever shown that. Rather, the opposite. My friend, Daniel Batson, spent a whole life putting people in the lab in very complex situations. And of course we are sometimes selfish, and some people more than others. But he found that systematically, no matter what, there’s a significant number of people who do behave altruistically, no matter what. If you see someone deeply wounded, great suffering, you might just help out of empathic distress — you can’t stand it, so it’s better to help than to keep on looking at that person. So we tested all that, and in the end, he said, clearly people can be altruistic. So that’s good news. And even further, we should look at the banality of goodness. Now look at here. When we come out, we aren’t going to say, “That’s so nice. There was no fistfight while this mob was thinking about altruism.” No, that’s expected, isn’t it? If there was a fistfight, we would speak of that for months. So the banality of goodness is something that doesn’t attract your attention, but it exists.
Now, look at this. So some psychologists said, when I tell them I run 140 humanitarian projects in the Himalayas that give me so much joy, they said, “Oh, I see, you work for the warm glow. That is not altruistic. You just feel good.” You think this guy, when he jumped in front of the train, he thought, “I’m going to feel so good when this is over?” (Laughter) But that’s not the end of it. They say, well, but when you interviewed him, he said, “I had no choice. I had to jump, of course.” He has no choice. Automatic behavior. It’s neither selfish nor altruistic. No choice? Well of course, this guy’s not going to think for half an hour, “Should I give my hand? Not give my hand?” He does it. There is a choice, but it’s obvious, it’s immediate. And then, also, there he had a choice. (Laughter)
There are people who had choice, like Pastor André Trocmé and his wife, and the whole village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France. For the whole Second World War, they saved 3,500 Jews, gave them shelter, brought them to Switzerland, against all odds, at the risk of their lives and those of their family. So altruism does exist.
So what is altruism? It is the wish: May others be happy and find the cause of happiness. Now, empathy is the affective resonance or cognitive resonance that tells you, this person is joyful, this person suffers. But empathy alone is not sufficient. If you keep on being confronted with suffering, you might have empathic distress, burnout, so you need the greater sphere of loving-kindness. With Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute of Leipzig, we showed that the brain networks for empathy and loving-kindness are different. Now, that’s all well done, so we got that from evolution, from maternal care, parental love, but we need to extend that. It can be extended even to other species.
Now, if we want a more altruistic society, we need two things: individual change and societal change. So is individual change possible? Two thousand years of contemplative study said yes, it is. Now, 15 years of collaboration with neuroscience and epigenetics said yes, our brains change when you train in altruism. So I spent 120 hours in an MRI machine. This is the first time I went after two and a half hours. And then the result has been published in many scientific papers. It shows without ambiguity that there is structural change and functional change in the brain when you train the altruistic love. Just to give you an idea: this is the meditator at rest on the left, meditator in compassion meditation, you see all the activity, and then the control group at rest, nothing happened, in meditation, nothing happened. They have not been trained.
So do you need 50,000 hours of meditation? No, you don’t. Four weeks, 20 minutes a day, of caring, mindfulness meditation already brings a structural change in the brain compared to a control group. That’s only 20 minutes a day for four weeks.
Even with preschoolers — Richard Davidson did that in Madison. An eight-week program: gratitude, loving- kindness, cooperation, mindful breathing. You would say, “Oh, they’re just preschoolers.” Look after eight weeks, the pro-social behavior, that’s the blue line. And then comes the ultimate scientific test, the stickers test. Before, you determine for each child who is their best friend in the class, their least favorite child, an unknown child, and the sick child, and they have to give stickers away. So before the intervention, they give most of it to their best friend. Four, five years old, 20 minutes three times a week. After the intervention, no more discrimination: the same amount of stickers to their best friend and the least favorite child. That’s something we should do in all the schools in the world.
Now where do we go from there?
When the Dalai Lama heard that, he told Richard Davidson, “You go to 10 schools, 100 schools, the U.N., the whole world.”
So now where do we go from there? Individual change is possible. Now do we have to wait for an altruistic gene to be in the human race? That will take 50,000 years, too much for the environment. Fortunately, there is the evolution of culture. Cultures, as specialists have shown, change faster than genes. That’s the good news. Look, attitude towards war has dramatically changed over the years. So now individual change and cultural change mutually fashion each other, and yes, we can achieve a more altruistic society.
So where do we go from there? Myself, I will go back to the East. Now we treat 100,000 patients a year in our projects. We have 25,000 kids in school, four percent overhead. Some people say, “Well, your stuff works in practice, but does it work in theory?” There’s always positive deviance. So I will also go back to my hermitage to find the inner resources to better serve others.
But on the more global level, what can we do? We need three things. Enhancing cooperation: Cooperative learning in the school instead of competitive learning, Unconditional cooperation within corporations — there can be some competition between corporations, but not within. We need sustainable harmony. I love this term. Not sustainable growth anymore. Sustainable harmony means now we will reduce inequality. In the future, we do more with less, and we continue to grow qualitatively, not quantitatively. We need caring economics. The Homo economicus cannot deal with poverty in the midst of plenty, cannot deal with the problem of the common goods of the atmosphere, of the oceans. We need a caring economics. If you say economics should be compassionate, they say, “That’s not our job.” But if you say they don’t care, that looks bad. We need local commitment, global responsibility. We need to extend altruism to the other 1.6 million species. Sentient beings are co-citizens in this world. and we need to dare altruism.
So, long live the altruistic revolution. Viva la revolución de altruismo.
If you do not have time 30 second sketch note of his talk –
Matthieu in his talk this week shared data of how crime has gone down over the years. However, people are more afraid now to let their kids play in the street than 30 years ago. The media mostly shows the dark side of humanity and what has gone wrong. We are afraid to talk to strangers and help each other. The statistics show a different story. If you do not believe the statistics, then maybe we need a middle ground. I like what Adam Grant said at a previous Action for Happiness talk, he said to imagine that people have your best interests at heart and they want to help you. He calls it Pronoia “the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being.” We are so used to paranoia, that people are against us.
With everything there can be a lot of talk, scientific evidence, intellectual debate, we can go round in circles with this. Thinking we are better than others. We are important etc etc. For me the end of his talk was a little wow moment, how he with a group of volunteers shows compassion in action. He showed us the work of the charity he has founded Karuna-Shechen , this is what matters most to me, how we help ourselves and each other. He is using his knowledge and wisdom to directly help people suffering. For example, during this months book tour all money Karuna-Shechen receive this month is going directly to help people in Nepal. I have donated a monthly amount. If you want to donate please do 100% donations go to their projects.
I will leave you with something you can practice if you want to wish that other people be happy. This comes from Meng who works at Google and runs the Search Inside Yourself programme. He encourages you to spend 10 seconds an hour, silently wishing happiness for others around you. Try this for a week, beginning with 10 seconds a day. There are limitless places to practice this. I like the suggestion I got from Nathanael Wolfe, to practice sending people compassion when you are in the park and walking around.
Happy weekend to you all 😉