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Lions Roar : March 2016
Peter Singer: Matthieu, if people say, “I want to be happy, so I’m going to be an altruist,” are they really being altruistic? Matthieu Ricard: No, of course not, and it will not work. What people call the “warm glow,” the positive feeling that comes from doing good things for others, does not originate from just doing something that benefits others. It comes from doing it with a warm heart. So the pursuit of selfish happiness is bound to fail. To be preoccupied with “me, me, me” all day long makes you feel mis- erable, and you will make everyone’s life miserable around you. Peter Singer: And if people do get a warm glow from know- ing they’ve helped others, then those are the kind of people we want in the world, right? Matthieu Ricard: What makes the warm glow not selfish is that it comes as a secondary effect from truly helping others. Suppose you cultivate a wheat field to feed your village or family. You cultivate wheat and get straw as a bonus. The warm glow comes from a sincere good heart. Let’s say you don’t give a damn about poor people, but you’ve heard giving would make you feel good. So you give, but you don’t feel the warm glow. In Altruism in Humans, Daniel Batson defines altruism as an intention, a motivation. That doesn’t mean that we are altruistic all the time, but at some point there will be the intention, unambigu- ously, that you want to do good for others. Maybe you’ll get the warm glow, but that’s not your primary motive. But the idea that an action can only be altruistic if you perceive it as a painful sacri- fice is also very silly. There is a natural joy in being truly altruistic. Peter Singer: Your book discusses voluntary simplicity. How do you understand the concept? Matthieu Ricard: Peter, your own recent book referenced a study that said three-quarters of the people in Los Angeles can’t fit their car in their garage because they have too much stuff. Vol- untary simplicity is happy simplicity, because piling up goods doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We have to take care of our stuff, we have to fix it, and so on. The idea behind voluntary simplicity is that a simple life is a happy life. I’ll give you one example. I was at the hermitage office, back in the Himalayas. There’s no heating in the winter and the electricity goes on and off, but I cannot find a happier place to be. I was thinking, okay, imagine a fairy comes and offers me three material wishes. What am I going to wish for? And I started laughing. There was not a single material thing I could think of that would improve what I had there. That’s happy voluntary simplicity. Another aspect of voluntary simplicity is that, as a monk, I don’t have many personal needs—I do not own a house, land, a car—and therefore it is easy for me to dedicate to helping others 95% of any financial resources that come my way. Julia Wise: Family and friendship are more important to one’s happiness than things like material wealth. We live near my husband’s family so that our daughter can spend time with her aunts and her grandfather. We structure our time to emphasize those relationships more than working extra hours to bring in more income to buy more things. I’m watching my sister plan her wedding right now—it takes like a year and a half to plan a wedding! I asked my parents if it was like that when they got married, and they said, no, there wasn’t the same expectation that everything had to be so elaborate. Now, is all this bringing you closer to your partner? Is it bring- ing you closer to your friends, who now need to cram into their bridesmaid dresses? How is this enriching your life? I don’t know! Peter Singer: Let’s talk about the roles of the head and heart. How does the cognitive or reasoning element combine with the emotional? Matthieu Ricard: Many psychologists and neuroscientists see empathy in two ways: cognitive and emotional empathy. Cogni- tive empathy is our ability to imagine someone else’s situation and perspective cognitively, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to altruistic behavior. Some people say that altruism has to be defined by action—if there’s no action, it’s not altruistic. But there are ben- eficial actions that can be motivated by selfish motivations. Also, you can have a great intention to do good but for some reason, the circumstances do not allow you to put that intention into action. That doesn’t negate the fact that it was altruistic. Emotional empathy is affective resonance: when you see someone with a big smile and you feel joyful. And if you see a person suffering, you suffer because of it. The problem with emotional empathy alone—without the bigger dimension of, say, compassion and warmheartedness—is that you may soon burn out. Suppose you are a nurse. Day after day after day, you keep on resonating with the suffering you see. It leads to burnout. Altruism offers an antidote. I saw this myself when I was working with the neuroscientist Tania Singer. Tania put me in an fMRI scanner and said, “Do your usual meditation,” which in my case was compassion meditation. After ten minutes she asked, “What are you doing? This is not what we normally see in the brain when people are experienc- ing empathy.” I explained that compassion is quite different from empathy, so she said, “Well, could you do just empathy now?” I’d been in an area of Tibet that had experienced a major earthquake, and I’d recently seen a documentary about Roma- nian orphans. For an hour, I tried to resonate again and again with these terrible images. It was complete burnout. When Tania asked me if I would like to return to my com- passion meditation, I said, “Please! I can’t stand this feeling anymore.” The altruistic love and compassion meditation I then did was so different. I felt a stream of love going out to those children, embracing them. The fMRI showed that the effect on the brain was very different, too. Peter Singer: Evolutionary theory can easily explain altruism toward kin, toward people we’re in a reciprocal relationship with, but it has more difficulty explaining altruism toward strangers. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2016 64