Sunday, July 29, 2007

Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness

While on holiday on British Columbia's beautiful west coast I read an inspirational article in the Vancouver Sun that I'd like to share with you, given that it reflects my thoughts too. It also just so happens to keep with last week's Friday Feature, which showcased the excellent blog Climate of Our Future. Written by D. Todd, the Vancouver Sun article reflects our biological imperitive for altruism to achieve happiness.

The search for true happiness has been going on for millennia and remains the subject of discourse for philosophers. Yet, it continually seems to elude many of us the more we pursue it.
American author, Bill McKibben wrote in the February issue of Ecology Magazine: "Climate change isn't just a threat. It's an opportunity for us to live happier, more fulfilling lives." What he's getting at here is that one person's happiness can't continue at the expense of others. If one person finds wealth, success and "a sense of well being" by cheating or polluting, that kind of satisfaction will harm the Earth, others, and ultimately him(her)self. It is the opposite of altruism. And altruism lies at the heart of true happiness. Here's what others have to say on this:

Mattieu Ricard, a 69-year old Buddhist monk and French biologist and philosopher says that "precoccupation with the self leads to detrimental urges" in an article by D. Todd (Vancouver Sun, July 7, 2007). According to Ricard, one of the primary ways to attain happiness is to flow with compassion by practising altruistic love. In his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Ricard adopted the perspective of the Dalai Lama called "secular spirituality" to assist people in embracing what the French call joie de vivre and what Aristotle described as "human flourishing".

Vancouver School of Theology, Sharon Betcher suggests that in our consumer culture the mass media stimulates people toward "immature desires." She further asserts that happiness needs to be linked to ethical action. She believes that "an understanding of [true] happiness will turn the planet away from environmental degradation." (Vancouver Sun). Todd of the Vancouver Sun adds, "changing our understanding of happiness could set the stage for a truly ecological age. McKibben says, "We know, after the long experience of the 20th century all the things that don't work for human satisfaction (centrally planned economies, endlessly repeated ideologies, even more accumulation). We know from what the scientists now tell us weekly, what doesn't work for the planet (burning hydrocarbons). Environmentalism is now the art of putting those two sets of facts together."

Echoing McKibben's approach, Betcher says: "In our current context, living within constraints can be more creative and fulfilling than merely satiating desire."

The empty danger of self-preoccupation was illustrated by a chilling experiment conducted on laboratory rats summarized by Vancouver Sun's D. Todd. The experiment consisted of giving electode-fitted rodents the opportunity to press three levers: one provided food, the second provided water and the third stimulated the pleasure centre in their brains. Guess what happened...yeah...the rats kept juicing up on the brain's pleasure synapses and forgot to eat or drink. They died--euphorically--of dehydration and starvation. The lesson is obvious: hedonism and addiction to drugs, sex, gambling or food may provide short-term bliss but will end up in long-term misery. Satisfying desires motivated by vanity, fear or a hunger for self-esteem, will never lead to contentment or happiness. Happiness is a state of mind and requires one to "work at it" according to Buddhist monk, Ricard. Like anything worthwhile in life it requires effort.
In the end, there is no magic stick or pill to achieve happiness. We are most happy when we make others happy. We are happy when we are in touch with an inner spark, follow an ethical path, feel connected to humans and the natural world and contribute to the wider community.

Gandhi said: "We must be the change we expect to see in the world."

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


MK said...

Enlightening thoughts if I may say so, and what a sight, those photos that go with your post.

Sugarqueensdream said...

Wonderful post.I throughly enjoyed it .

Simon said...

Nice post. The article has some very good arguments. I like the photos too.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Beautiful post, Nina. Glad to have you back.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for the kind comments and wishes, Jean-Luc, Mark, Sugar Queens Dream and Neoauteur! It's good to be back! Jean-Luc, I am so loving your retro costume party aboard the Enterprise! LOL! Takes me back a few years... :)

Lisa McGlaun said...

Thank you for posting this. It's the reason I run my blog. Everyday it forces me to give back in some way or to at least examine how others are "being the change".

Thanks for reinforcing what I feel is true. Beautiful blog, by the way.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Lisa. We all live on this beautiful planet together...

Online Education said...

Awesome these are great and beautiful pictures.