Do Unto Others

I am a firm believer that the world is what we think it to be. If  we’re feeling a bit down or if we’re elated, we’ll tend to focus on information that justifies our mood. Since our moods can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies, it’s important that we recognize how much our prefrontal cortex can dampen the activity of the emotion producing amygdala. We can think ourselves into a better place.

However, there are times when there’s a greater cause for concern, and this may be one of those times. The struggling economy is taking its toll, not just on those families that are suffering from lost jobs, but on all of us that are forced to lower our expectations. Many of us are having to set aside our dreams for retirement or for a life with reasonable financial security. There just doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that will soon restore our lost prosperity.

The policy makers that are elected to help us in times like these aren’t proving to be much help. Whether it’s the initial stimulus package, the need for another, or the reform of a health care system that represents a sixth of our economy, there seems to be an unconscionable level of finger pointing and game playing.  One begins to sense that all too many are more concerned with whether they personally win or lose than whether they resolve the problems our country is facing.

The same  spirit seems to rule the media. So much of what I read and hear is about why the other side is not only wrong, but lacking the basic human values each side claims for itself. Conspicuously absent is an appreciation for someone else’s point of view and any attempt to use the competition of ideas to arrive at better ones than any of us can come up with on our own.

And having just endured the Monday morning commute, I see the same selfishness in our society at large. Too many drivers are unwilling to let others merge in front of them, as if the race to work is a life and death matter to be determined by the precious seconds one might lose.

There’s pretty good data that our species is driven by what Richard Dawkins has called the “selfish gene,” but there’s also abundant evidence that humans flourish because of their ability to cooperate.  Those individual sacrifices we are called upon to make in the short term pay huge dividends in the longer term.  The world we live in is made better by our collective effort.

So perhaps we need to stop looking to our elected officials for leadership and one by one, demonstrate it ourselves. Those mirror neurons recently discovered in our brains encourage us to mimic the thoughts and actions of others, and for others to mimic our thoughts and actions. In this way, adaptive behaviors become contagious.  In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a fondness for Hush Puppies spread through our culture.  Imagine what would happen if self-sacrifice and civility were to spread the same way.

It all starts with what some have call “random acts of kindness.” We let that stranger merge in front of us during the morning commute, and they then mimic the behavior and let another stranger merge in front of them.  Little by little, the behavior spreads until road rage is replaced with all of us politely nodding and smiling at one another. The pleasant mood we would all find ourselves in at the end of the commute might just carry over into our work and then into the rest of our lives.

With the norm becoming civility and cooperation, divisive politicians and journalists would find themselves shunned. It would soon become clear that the only way to get elected or sell products for your advertisers would be to focus on the common good.  Those that didn’t would be ostracized.  Soon perhaps even the bankers would feel compelled to set aside self-interest, and obscene compensation packages would become a thing of the past.

I know that this is a bit of a pipe dream, but at a local level, polite behavior does create wonders. Try going out of your way to be friendly and treat others with respect.  All of a sudden, people become friendly in return, and life seems less stressful and more fun. One begins to feel better about the human race and not as pessimistic about our prospects for the future.

We may not transform the world at large, but we will transform the world we live in, and that’s a pretty good start.

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