Friday, January 27, 2017

The Dalai Lama Says It Is Sometimes OK To Be Selfish

This is mostly a post from November, 2013. But there was another article about something similar involving the Dalai Lama this week. So I have a bit about that at the end of this post.

And of course, Adam Smith said when people act selfishly they are led, as if by an invisible hand, to make society better off.

So when might it be OK to be selfish according to his holiness? When caring for others.

Wait, how can that be selfish? Or is this some kind of Zen riddle like what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, it's biology and evolution. See Lending a hand does a body good by Jessica Belasco, from the San Antonio Express-News, 10-25-2013.

She talked to Dr. James R. Doty, a neurosurgeon at the Stanford University School of Medicine and founder of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Excerpts:

"Practicing compassion — recognizing someone else is suffering and wanting to help relieve that suffering — just might be as important for health as exercise or a healthful diet, some scientists believe.

When we respond to another person's needs, our body responds in turn:

We become relaxed and calm.
Our blood pressure goes down.
Our stress level goes down.

Practicing compassion is associated with lengthened telomeres, the DNA that protects the ends of your chromosomes and is a marker of longevity.

To understand why humans are hard-wired for compassion, Doty said, just look at human evolution: Caring for others was essential to the survival of the species. Humans developed powerful neuropathways associated with nurturing and bonding with their offspring as motivation to care for them in a hostile environment; otherwise their genes could not be passed on. The same was true beyond the nuclear family when humans formed hunter/gatherer tribes.

A few hundred millennia later, our need for compassion remains strong. We may not be facing predators as our ancestors did, but frequent low-level stressors — work deadlines, traffic noise, our cellphone buzzing with texts — keep our fight-or-flight response continually engaged. That releases stress hormones, which raises the risk of disease.

When we're responding to others' needs, though, we engage the “parasympathetic nervous system,” relaxing us, Doty said. Stress hormones decrease, and the immune system is boosted. In fact, that occurs even if we just think about performing a good act for someone.

That's why intervening when someone needs help — whether in the form of a hug, reassurance, financial help or something else — has a powerful impact not just on the person being helped but on the helper.

Studies also have shown that volunteering, which is a way to practice compassion, helps increase longevity — but with an important exception. Study subjects who said they were volunteering to impress somebody or for some other benefit, not because they authentically wanted to help others, didn't enjoy the same benefit."
Adam Smith wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. One point he made there was that we are able to sympathize with other people by trying imagine what they are going through (and I wonder if we need to be good storytellers to be able to do that). Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has been studying how the hormone oxytocin plays a role in making us feel good when we have empathy for others (beware: Zak is a big hugger). See an earlier post Adam Smith vs. Bart Simpson for more details.

There is an interesting book called Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination. It relates storytelling to evolution.

Click here to go the Amazon listing. It is by Christopher Collins, professor emeritus of English at New York University. Here is the description:
"Christopher Collins introduces an exciting new field of research traversing evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and literary study. Paleopoetics maps the selective processes that originally shaped the human genus millions of years ago and prepared the human brain to play, imagine, empathize, and engage in fictive thought as mediated by language. A manifestation of the "cognitive turn" in the humanities, Paleopoetics calls for a broader, more integrated interpretation of the reading experience, one that restores our connection to the ancient methods of thought production still resonating within us.

Speaking with authority on the scientific aspects of cognitive poetics, Collins proposes reading literature using cognitive skills that predate language and writing. These include the brain's capacity to perceive the visible world, store its images, and retrieve them later to form simulated mental events. Long before humans could share stories through speech, they perceived, remembered, and imagined their own inner narratives. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Collins builds an evolutionary bridge between humans' development of sensorimotor skills and their achievement of linguistic cognition, bringing current scientific perspective to such issues as the structure of narrative, the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, the relation of rhetoric to poetics, the relevance of performance theory to reading, the difference between orality and writing, and the nature of play and imagination."
Click here to read a longer description by Collins himself.

Here is the new article from this week The Dalai Lama Explains Why Being Kind to Others is the Secret to Happiness. Excerpt:
"Have you ever wondered why it matters that you care for other people?

It seems commonsense that this is a good way to live life. But there are dominant philosophies today that suggest we need to maximize our own individual self-interest.

This comes from economic theories of capitalism that suggest when people look after their own self-interest, then society is better off.

The Dalai Lama explains why this doesn’t make sense in the beautiful passage below. As he says, it’s an obvious fact that your own sense of wellbeing can be provided through your relationships with others. So it’s best to start cultivating practices of kindness and compassion."
Then the article has a long statement from the Dalai Lama on this philosophy. But some economists might say that you can't run a successful business if you don't care about others and try to learn their wants and desires. Here is what Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”

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