Let altruism be your guide

Yesterday I was amongst one of the lucky 800 people who attended an Action for Happiness event with buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. 


Matthieu Ricard made the case that altruism is a powerful way to make decisions for both the short and long term benefit of humanity and the planet.  Matthieu defined altruism as the wish that other people can be happy and find the causes of happiness.  Empathy on the other hand is the affective resonance which tells you that others are joyful or are suffering.  However, empathy for another’s distress is not enough and can lead to burnout,  so loving kindness is needed to avoid this.

Matthieu Ricard argued that in order to have a more altruistic society we need both change at the individual level and at societal level.  “Is it possible for an individual to change?” he asked. 2000 years of contemplative studies say yes, 15 years of collaboration with neuroscience and epigenetics says yes. Our brains change when we  train for altruism.  Matthieu recounted how he had famously been dubbed the “happiest person on the planet” as an MRI scan had demonstrated that his years of meditation as a monk had brought about structural changes in his brain which have made him more altruistic.  However, he made the point that he is actually a very poor meditator. “Do you need 50,000 hours of mediation to change the brain?” he asked. No. Changes in the brain can be detected in individuals who have learned to meditate for just 20 minutes over a 4 week period compared to a control group.  This type of loving kindness meditation has even been shown to work in pre-schoolers.

Matthieu also argued that we do not need to wait for an altruistic gene to develop in the human race, which could take 1000s of years, as we can fall back on cultural change which moves much faster than genetic change. Behaviours which were culturally acceptable 100 years ago or 1000 years ago are no longer the norm and Matthieu Ricard argued that it is this possibility of both individual change and cultural change which makes the ideal of a more altruistic society a reality.

Matthieu argues in favour of the banalisation of goodness rather than considering it to be exceptional behaviour.  He quoted Rabbi Mordecai Paldiel:

“Goodness leaves us gasping, for we refuse to recognize it as a natural human attribute. So off we go on a long search for some hidden motivation, some extraordinary explanation, for such peculiar behaviour. Let us not search for mysterious explanations of goodness in others, but rather rediscover the mystery of goodness in ourselves.”

Matthieu provided many examples of people who behave altruistically no matter what the circumstances.  We all left the event recognising how important it is to recognise the goodness in ourselves and in others if we want to live in a kinder more caring world.  If you missed the Action for Happiness event, the TED talk below covers a lot of the same ground. You may also wish to purchase Matthieu Ricard’s new book Altruism which will be published in a few days time.

Matthieu Ricard: How to let altruism be your guide


Posted by Shona Lockhart on 27th May 2015


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