I had the opportunity to see Alan Alda host a panel at the World Science Festival in NYC Friday night. Because of the non-profit I’m launching, I was curious about the topic, “What It Means to Be Human: The Enigma of Altruism”. I learned a lot.
I would like to share a bit more of what I’m doing since the panel touched the related topic of altruism. In fact, since I wrote the first draft of this post, I saw a tweet that said something about needing to find a better word for charity. I think altruism is it. We can then refer to altruistic lifestyles or altruistic living (people who live an altruistic life).
Did you know that Charles Darwin worried that the existence of altruism would wreck the theory of evolution?
Once pointed out, it kinda makes sense. If we evolve along the lines of survival of the fittest, then anything that doesn’t help an organism survive should be among the first characteristics to disappear.
The panel discussed three ways to account for altruistic behavior, but their reasoning didn’t satisfy me. It seemed to leave something out. And, this omission, coincidentally, is what my company is about, so please read on.
The three ways to account for altruism were:
- For the good of the genes… meaning, an organism would somehow know that it’s related to another, and to help related genes survive would cooperate towards its survival. (I have an objection to this whole line of reasoning. Consider the fact that we’re killing the planet, and yet without it we’ve got a real survival challenge.)
- Direct reciprocity, meaning though I don’t get a direct benefit by helping you, I can expect that you will in turn help me in the future.
- Indirect reciprocity. Even though I may not have an expectation of you helping me in the future, if I help you, we build a culture of helping other people, and eventually that help will work its way back to me.
What about doing something just because it makes us feel good? Do we? Or, do we always have some ulterior motive, hoping to get something in exchange even at some point.
Is this good feeling we get when we do something good/altruistic important? I suspect scientists simply ignore it as unquantifiable emotion. Something that doesn’t really factor into hard-science.
However, in looking for something hard, these scientists are ignoring the obvious. Indirect reciprocity is not only about some benefit in an indistinct future… I believe the good feeling itself is a direct reward that motivates this behavior.
I also believe that particular good feeling we get when helping others as part of a “human community” is quite important.
Have you ever had an experience that sharing has made bigger? I have.
Have you ever come into a conversation with a group of people talking about something positive, and simply felt better? I have. (Unfortunately, the opposite is true too!)
Humans are pretty unique in this area of altruism (though not totally… one panelist kept bringing up marmasets as another example). Behaviorally, we actually have a sense of “we” that enables us to get along even if we don’t know the other person.
It turns out, “Indirect reciprocity catches fire in humans” and that “language is critical to this.” I think language is the first tool to help reward social behavior, but that technology has evolved to take it to another level. I truly believe social computing, while in its infancy, is a world-changing paradigm of the significance of language.
We’re going to use technology to bring people together for altruistic purposes.
In my opinion, “technology will accelerate indirect reciprocity.” And, I believe this is important not because indirect reciprocity is about some possible benefit received in the future. I believe the good feeling itself is critical and sufficient reward.
Together, we’re going to remember our hearts in our daily lives, which is reward itself.
The panel mentioned that “compassion is the essence of altruism.” I like that. I believe compassion is another step along the evolutionary path, and therefore that good feeling we get by being compassionate is “evolutionarily important” as it points us in the right direction. The high we get is like a drug, rewarding us for the evolutionarily important behavior of “doing good.”
Remember how President Obama made everyone feel? Every voter that cast their vote for him felt like they were changing the world. One vote cast individually, counted together. Changed world. Simple. And all he was doing was running for president.
This is our mission. Bring people together through altruistic living to be a part of something bigger than any of us can be alone.
I believe our cultural value system is experiencing a major shift. We are materialistic and have an extrinsic reward system. We measure our success in title, salary, and the size of our TV. With falling portfolio values, limited job opportunities, and no sign of a return to anything else in sight, either we’ll continue to have very low self worth, or need to find another way to measure worth.
We’re not only going to value this good feeling we get through altruistic living, we’re going to actively generate it. Yep, that good feeling. That’s our output. That’s our measure. People are going to find that it’s infinite. That the more good that’s shared, the more generated. The more generated, the better we all feel. By bringing this into our daily lives, we’ll replace the worry and crappy feelings we get when thinking about our sinking material worth, with happiness and positive feelings about the altruistic community we’re belong to.
And, that’s what Where’s Your Heart? is about. It’s about improving people’s lives through altruistic living.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. Here’s a take-away. Next time you’re stressed out, at the end of your patience, grumpy, and about to take any of these things out on someone else. STOP! Then ask yourself “where’s my heart?” Get your mind into your chest and find it. How does that make you feel? If it’s been a while, you might need some help. As a booster, think about that unconditional love your children throw at you as you walk in the door. We’re conditioned to respond to that. Writing this article in the cafe, I can’t help but smile picturing my nieces running up and hugging me as I walk in for a visit. That’s the energy we’re going to tap into and bring to the forefront.
It’s not a side-effect of life. It is life itself.
PS The title of this post came from a documentary Alan Alda / PBS are releasing on November 9th on PBS titled “The Human Spark“. It was previewed by the panel, and looks quite interesting. Mark your calendars.