Are people selfish or altruistic? Are we basically aggressive or cooperative? The ethos of our capitalist culture seems to be that people are inherently selfish and competitive, so much so that this view of human nature seems to be common sense. There is a lot of evidence, however, that this view of human nature is wrong and that, instead, altruism and cooperation are hard-wired. Very young children routinely seek to relieve the distress of others. Studies of communities following natural disasters reveal that people overwhelmingly exhibit altruistic and communitarian behavior. We need to change our social institutions to make it safe for people to express their basic altruistic natures.
We find ourselves waiting to get help too often in our society, whether it’s waiting to see a doctor or waiting online or on the phone for technical support. Waiting for help reproduces a childhood situation in which the child is helpless to get the attentive care of a parent. Such states of helplessness cause us to get depressed, cynical and/or angry. We even blame ourselves rather than a system that is indifferent to our welfare.
New years resolutions don’t work because, as much as we might have a conscious wish to change, we have an unconscious wish to stay the same. The power of our unconscious minds rests in our commitment to safety. Changing is threatening to us, and we get in our own way in order to lessen that threat. A belief in the power of the unconscious mind flies in the face of our culture’s obsession with neurobiology and with the alleged freedom of choice that we’re all supposed to have.
Most of us think that addiction comes from the power of a drug, or substance. Once we’re in it’s thrall, we’ll do anything to get more. In fact, research has shown (e.g. Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream) that addicts recover when they feel part of a community and when they have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, especially in their work lives. As Hari says, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”