Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Becoming Human: Altruism over Egoism

I came across an old, but interesting study today about the return rates of lost wallets. According to the study, people are more inclined to pop a wallet back in the post if they find a positive message in it.

What struck me however, was not the fact that you can appeal to a stranger’s better nature through a few well-chosen words of positivity, but the pitifully low return rates even then.

Whilst significantly more wallets seemed to find their way back to their rightful owner with the inclusion of a positive message, the statistics still didn’t paint a particularly good picture of human nature. At best, the researchers recorded a 40 percent return rate; when I should add, all the passers-by had to do was to pop the wallet in the nearest post box (in the stamped, self-addressed open envelop it had been dropped on the street in).

I felt quite dismayed when I read this, not because I’m some sort of self-righteous moralist, but because I hold in high esteem the words of the great psychologist Abraham Maslow who wrote:

“Humans have a higher nature which…includes the need for meaningful work, for responsibility, for creativity, for being fair and just, for doing what is worthwhile and for preferring to do it well.”

Of course those inspiring words can seem a little hollow when a study shows that only 40 percent of easily returnable lost wallets manage to find their way back home. Where in those dire statistics is the sense of responsibility, the sense of fairness and justice, the inclination towards worthwhile, meaningful deeds that’s meant to reflect our higher nature?

To me, that level of apathy seems more reflective of the philosopher George Santayana’s pessimistic view of human nature when he wrote:

“Dig a little beneath the surface [of human nature] and you’ll find a ferocious, persistent, and profoundly selfish man.”

So which is it?

Are we selfish, egotistic, self-centred beings who couldn’t care less about anything that isn’t directly linked to our own self-interests, or is there more to us…do we have a higher nature, one that elevates us above base animal, self-serving desires?

Well, whilst pondering the above question I was reminded of another of Abraham Maslow’s famous statements:

“Being a human being – in the sense of being born to the human species – must be defined also in terms of becoming a human being. In this sense a baby is only potentially a human being, and must grow into humanness.”

Some people of course, use the example of new-born babies as a perfect illustration of our fundamentally selfish nature. Those parasitic bundles of joy (to coin a TV ad that’s equally cynical view of children made me laugh) are interested in nothing more than their own self-preservation and gratification. They take, take, take…they scream when they’re hungry or when they’re left sitting in their own poo, but apart from the odd cute smile and amusing gurgle, they give back very little in return for their limitless supply of on-tap breast milk, free clean nappies complete with attendant nappy changer…and of course, free accommodation with comfy cot.

That, the argument goes, shows human nature laid bare – fundamentally self-centred and self-absorbed.

Growing Into Humanness

But Maslow’s point is that a new born baby’s self-indulgent behaviour isn’t reflective of human nature at all; human beings must, as he wrote ‘grow into humanness’.

In ‘The Art of Happiness’ co-written with the Dalai Lama, psychiatrist Howard C Cutler uses the analogy of language to aptly illustrate the point. We are, as Cutler points out, the only creatures on Earth with areas of the brain dedicated to language – it’s a defining human trait. Yet that potential is only realised when we’re exposed to language in our environment; without that exposure our unique linguistic talents would remain dormant.

The same, Maslow would argue, is true of our ‘humanness’. The traits that define human ‘higher nature’ – the likes of altruism, kindness and compassion for others – are hard wired into the human brain, but they lie dormant, just like language, unless exposed to the right stimulus.

To use the example of a baby as evidence of our fundementally self-centred nature is a flawed as to use a baby to back up a claim that we’re incapable of speech.

Self-Actualisation

Maslow referred to the development of our humanness over the course of our lives as self-actualisation; a process whereby we move beyond simply trying to satisfy our own base needs and develop into fully rounded positive human beings who emphasise altruism and a sense of purpose over mere egotistical pursuits.

In fact, he identified nineteen traits that self-actualised people possess, three of which I think link in directly with the wallet dropping study I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Firstly, he noted that the self-actualised individual has a strong sense of ethics and has developed a firm sense of right and wrong, not based on a set of externally imposed rules, but on their own ‘often unconventional’ evaluation of right and wrong. Secondly, they show a strong sense of human kinship, exhibiting a genuine compassion for others and an altruistic streak that pushes them to help when they can. Thirdly, their values reflect a positive view of life and the world, not as a dog-eat-dog jungle but as a place of abundance where everyone has an opportunity and responsibility to make a positive contribution.

Taking the above three traits of a self-actualised human being – being ethical, having a genuine desire to help others, and the desire to make a positive contribution – what does it say when the majority of people wouldn’t even bother, according to studies, to take the time to return a lost wallet?

To me, it suggests that too many of us fail to live up to our potential – we fail to develop the humanness and the higher nature we all have the capacity for as human beings. If anything, it’s a stark reminder that we do indeed have to work at our humanity instead of simply taking it for granted. Whilst we’re hard wired to be compassionate, considerate, kind and helpful, those traits only develop through positive intent and action; just as our linguistic potential is only achieved through exposure to language.

It’s a lesson worth remembering, and one which may make us all more inclined to return a lost wallet if we come across one. On a purely self-centred level, such acts of positivity help us grow as human beings – to become self-actualised. But of course, achieving self-actualisation transcends looking out for one’s own self-interests; it leads to a genuine desire to make a positive, altruistic contribution to the world.

To quote the Dalai Lama in ‘The Art of Happiness’:

“The purpose of our lives needs to be positive…For our lives to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more peaceful – happier.”

To develop those positive human traits, to foster that sense of meaning, peace and happiness, the simple key really seems to be to help others when the opportunity arises, in whatever way you can…even if that’s just taking the time to stick a lost wallet back in the post.