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Being Altruistic will make our World a Better Place


Matthieu Ricard - a Buddhist monk who went from a scientific career as a molecular biologist in France (working under French Nobel Laureate François Jacob) to the study of Buddhism in the Himalayas 40 years ago and the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989 – did a fascinating talk for Action for Happiness a couple of weeks ago. He also appeared on Chris Evans’ BBC radio 2 breakfast show, so you may have heard that.

Ricard’s focus is all about compassionate thinking, kindness and, ultimately, altruism. He believes that altruism can answer the biggest challenges of our time: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and the environment in the long term. And that living more compassionately brings amazing benefits for ourselves, the people around us and the wider world.

But what is altruism? The diary definition states that altruism is: disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. It’s something which Ricard believes can be practiced, that you can train your mind to be more altruistic. He says that by spending 10 seconds of compassionate thought each day you can make an impact on your life, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I’ve spent the last week trying to spend at least 10 seconds each day being compassionate and I realised that I’m actually doing that – and more! – already. I don’t think I’m an especially kind person, I’m not sure I’d describe myself as particularly compassionate, or altruistic, but I maybe I am? I found that by taking the time to stop and think about what I’m thinking about (if that makes sense?) I realised that I spend a fairly large chunk of my day thinking of others – and, although I hate to say it because it makes me feel big-headed – without any ulterior motive or to gain anything for myself. If that’s being altruistic, then I guess I am?

So what did I do? I’m pretty sure everyone does this, it can’t just be me, but I do spend a lot of time asking my friends and loved ones how they’re doing. My friend recently lost her father suddenly, I know she’s struggling to come to terms with his loss and I make sure I speak to her every day to check how she’s doing and offer a shoulder. I have another friend who’s been suffering with a bad knee recently, so I’ve been checking on how she is and if there’s anything I can do to help her out, another friend has just bought a house which was left full of rubbish and filthy so I popped around with a pair of rubber gloves and some cleaning products and offered to help. It’s not that I consider these special things, they’re things I do for those I care for without even thinking – is that altruism?

Matthieu says “It's very important to show people the possibility of cultivating altruistic behaviour and motivation, in the same way that we cultivate other skills, like playing an instrument or solving mathematical equations. Meditators, of course, for thousands of years, have known from their own experience that they do become better human beings through their practice. However, their testimonials are linked with a particular tradition -- in my own case, with Buddhism. But as the Dalai Lama often says, there is no religion or spiritual path that will satisfy everyone; thus, we need something that is universal, linked with our basic human nature.”

So how can you practice altruism in 10 seconds? Our MD, Jen, has also been practising this and whenever she sees a plane in the sky – she consciously thinks “safe flight, have a wonderful journey, wherever you’re going”. It may sound a bit cheesy but it makes Jen smile.

In effect, if we all practice our altruistic thoughts and convert that into our learned behaviours, then regardless of religion or spirituality, the world will become a better place to live in. What’s not to love about that?

Matthieu Ricard has published a book entitled Altruism, which all good bookshops will be able to source for you. You can also watch his TEDtalk on Altruism here.

Well being


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