Matthieu Ricard doesn’t seem confrontational, with his monk’s robes, Nutella-sweet French accent, and bright, intelligent eyes.
But Ricard — the French-born Buddhist thinker who’s been dubbed “the world’s happiest man” — recently came to the Tech Insider offices with a score to settle.
As he details in the new book “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World,” society has been shaped by misguided conceptions of human nature, like the widely held assumption that humans are fundamentally driven by the desire for advancement of their personal status.
To Ricard, that gets the actual mechanisms of well-being completely wrong.
“If you’re pre-occupied with yourself, and pursue some sort of selfish maximization of your personal interest, you might feel some sort of satisfaction,” Ricard says. It’s a sense of I got it, I won, or something similar.
But, he says, if you’re looking for genuine fulfillment, a lack of regrets, and a conviction that your life is meaningful, that’s hard to come by if you’re in me-me-me mode all day long.
To Ricard, selfishness is “narrow” by nature, in that you’re imagining happiness to be independent from relationships with other people — rather than arising from those relationships.
The wiser investment in your own wellbeing, Ricard says, is to be altruistic.
It’s one of the main themes of positive psychology research. Studies say that being grateful to others is a better predictor of happiness than personality traits, that freely choosing to help others enhances your (and their) wellbeing, and that the spouses of ailing loved ones have higher well-being when they’re caregiving.
The assumption that people are fundamentally selfish is just theory made up by men alone in their libraries, Ricard argues — it doesn’t hold up to lived experience or empirical study.
Thomas Hobbes, who famously asserted that life would be “nasty, brutish, and short” if people were allowed to act naturally, was a political theorist, not an empirical social scientist doing replicable studies with thousands of people. Same with Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology who also said that most humans “are rascals” — he had access to a slice of the upper class in turn-of-the-century Vienna, not large-scale empirical studies.
Take, for instance, all the Japanese people who headed to Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear disaster to help clean up. If they were motivated by selfishness, Ricard says, they would have flown to the other side of the world.
To insist that people are basically selfish is “armchair science,” he says, and it’s especially clear when you see massive acts of kindness like in the wake of Fukushima.
“The beauty of science is that either, you put that to the test of reality, do research, experiment, large studies, you can see which one fits with reality and which one doesn’t match your hypothesis,” he says.
What Ricard — and social science — find is a surprising truth. Contrary to popular opinion, humans are basically good.
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