Is the World Better Thank We Think?
OUR THINKING FALLS into roughly two categories. In the first, we think the world is a pretty great place. If that is you, we need you. We need you to spread the message to those of us who don’t know it yet.
In the other category, we think the world isn’t all that great, to say the least. If that is you, I want to talk to you.
I want to talk to you because you can make the world better today by doing this one simple thing: Notice the good around you. Say what? Hang in there, I promise this will make sense.
First, let me give you some numbers that may surprise you. Bear in mind that of the seven and a half billion people in the world, we'll be talking about the approximately 4bn that are in the adult range. The World Giving Index reports that in 2015 one billion people volunteered their time. A staggering 1.4bn people gave to charity and, at 2.2bn, more than half the world’s adults helped out a stranger. That’s quite the picture of altruism.
Now add that, as Index Mundi—an organization that crunches numbers it gets from the American CIA—reports, 90% of the world’s drinking water sources have improved over the last decade and so has 60% of the world’s sanitation. There is great urgency to do more. At the same time, these are numbers we can feel good about.
Studies have shown that our environment is socially contagious. This is how, as I wrote at the beginning, you will make the world better when you notice the good around you. When you do, you naturally pay it forward. You’ve heard the phrase, “She had an infectious smile.” Goodness, like an infectious smile, is socially contagious. You become infected and, in turn, infect others. Thus, you become the source of a positive ripple effect that sets off other ripple effects.
But first, you have to give it your attention. Considering that half of all adults are doing something nice every day, this isn’t hard.
There is more.
How we think about the world affects the world, as well. Here is an example. Have you ever heard it said that people are self-interested? That even altruism is ultimately self-interest because we help others to lessen our own distress? This notion is very much part of the zeitgeist. Yet, it is an invention.
It goes back to Hobbes. Not Hobbs of Calvin and Hobbs fame but Thomas Hobbes, the English 17th Century political philosopher. That was his opinion. He said that when he gave money to a beggar, it wasn’t out of altruism but because he wanted to reduce his own distress. He wrote so persuasively that his contemporaries adopted as fact that we are only motivated by self-interest. Any environment is socially contagious—400 years later, long after the general public has forgotten where it came from, we still believe it.
Recent research shows Hobbes was dead wrong.
It’s understandable that he believed as he did. His perception of human nature was shaped by the English Civil War and the Thirty Year War. With his mental prowess (he wrote Leviathan, a bestseller in 1651) and the force of his personality, he caused society to adopt the belief that we are selfish brutes. There is a feedback loop at work here. Our environment affects us, we, in turn affect our environment. In this sense, the world we have today was, in part, created by his misperception of human nature.
An experiment at the University of Kansas identified how altruism works. There is a great paper here. Briefly put, participants were confronted with a person in dire need of assistance. However, they were given an out—they were assured someone else would step in if they didn’t want to help.
Here is where it gets interesting. Of the subjects who reported feeling distress over the person who needed their help, 67% opted out of helping. Of the subjects who reported feeling empathy, how many do you think opted out? 17%.
The next time someone says you do good deeds just to make yourself feel better, you know the real truth.
Instead of being influenced by Hobbes and the media’s disproportionate negative reporting, let's let ourselves be influenced by the good in the world.
The World Giving Index, beyond a shadow of a doubt, shows us to be quite wonderful. Fortified by the knowledge of our empathy-based altruism, we can leave Hobbes behind.
In the beginning, I wrote that if you already think the world is an amazing place, we need you to spread that message. I hope this post inspires you to start many a ripple effect that initiates countless other ripple effects by sharing that thinking.
If you didn’t think so before, I hope this article inspires you to break with the idea that we are motivated by self-interest and to see sources that advance this notion, like some of the media, for instance, for what it is—a delivery system of disproportionately bad news. Join us and begin to take note when the world around you shows you its good side. Remember, you are someone else’s environment. You can start your own ripple effect. Make the world even better than it is.
5 Steps to Self-Empowerment
You don't become empowered by becoming perfect.
An essential part of self-empowerment is to embrace all of who you are!
Elon Musk said, "I think it matters if someone has a good heart."
Would you agree? If so, I'd like to bring your attention to being good-hearted towards yourself.
You don't have to be madly in love with your (take your pick) nasty, needy, helpless, confused, angry, cynical, weak, side. But to be empowered, you must, must bring compassion and empathy to it. You must, must be forgiving toward it. Because when you are not, your flaws become not only your challenges and the things you work on, on your journey to living an empowered life, they become what undermines your power.
It's not berating yourself for your flaws that turn you into Mother Teresa or Elon Musk. It's loving those flaws while steadily building behaviors and perspectives that are in line with who you, in your heart of hearts, want to become.
The best place for self-empowerment is to start with forgiveness of your flaws and then to expand your repertoire to include celebration. Yes, of yourself. All else, your empowerment, usefulness, effectiveness, happiness, and wholeness will flow from these two: Forgiveness and celebration. The following 5-step exercise will give you a good start.
5-Step Self-Empowerment Exercise
Step 1: See both sides
Think of three things (optional: write them down) that you consider strengths in yourself. (For example, three of mine are: I'm a gentle teacher. I have a soft heart. I can be a badass if I have to be.) Hold these things in your heart and soul. Next, think of two things about you that you feel shame about or that you feel guilt about. (For example, two of mine are: I hold grudges, I default to avoidance if I think something could fail.)
Now, in your mind's eye, place these flaws and strengths side by side so you can clearly see that your personality contains both! Take a really good look at the good things about you! Maybe you're passionate, loving, caring--whatever is on your list.
Step 2: Forgive Yourself
Think of your flaws and just plunge in! Try not to overthink it. Just form the thought: "I forgive you." Repeat it like a mantra. (For example, I'll say, "I forgive myself for holding grudges.") The effect is very much amplified if you hug yourself around the middle, or pet your shoulder, or put your hand on your heart. Please try it. Nobody's going to see you do it.
If you can't do it
It's important not to wait till you feel forgiving. The doing will produce the feeling. If you can't bring yourself to say, "I forgive you," imagine saying it to someone else. Someone whom you find it easy to forgive, like a friend or pet. Think of them, or visualize them in your mind's eye, say the words, then switch out their countenance with your own. If you recoil, switch back to the previous visual or thought. Switch back and forth until you can hold an image or thought of yourself while saying, "I forgive you." It may help to use a picture of yourself you may have on your smart phone, or to work in front of a mirror (aptly called "mirror work".)
Step 3: Apply your strengths
The is often a natural symmetry to our strengths and flaws. You can apply your former to your latter. (For example, I might say, "I can be a kind teacher to myself regarding my grudges. I can summon my inner badass regarding my avoidance.") Writing these out may make them easier to craft. You can trust that your strengths can help you with your flaws. I didn't strategically pick my strengths and flaws to coordinate. It just worked out that way as I wrote this post. It will for you, too.
Step 4: Write a love letter
Remember, you don't become empowered by becoming perfect. You become empowered by embracing all of yourself--your flaws and your wonderfulness! You've already started the work of forgiving yourself. Now, write a letter that celebrates your awesome self! (My example: "Dear India, You've done some great work, learning to switch from teaching to facilitating people's self-empowerment. You show people how to see their beautiful, amazing, worthy and lovable selves. And, whaat (?!) you play the guitar. How cool is that!?")
Why not pick up your phone, pad, pen, right now and write your own love letter to yourself? You don't need it, but just in case you want it, I give you full permission to write it. You'll be surprised how it will lift you up. And if you want your self-empowerment to climb as steep as a rocket, write yourself a love letter every week, maybe even several times a week for the next little while.
Listen, no B.S, you deserve to treat yourself with a kind heart and with love! You are as beautiful and unique as a snowflake. There'll never be anyone else like you in the world. Sure, that statement has become a cliché. So what? Just let it sink in anyway: You. Are. Extraordinary. There. Is. No. One. Else. In. The. World. Like. You.
Step 5: A Mantra to make it stick
To make your advancements stick and to drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to maintain them, you can create a mantra that helps you remember the gist of your love letters so you can benefit long after having written them. My go-to mantra is: You are whole, wise, and divine, perfect as you are and as you are not.
This is a process. With this Self-Empowerment exercise, you are building a self-empowerment neural network. Right now, it's a tiny baby network. To grow it: Repeat the 3 steps. The more often, the bigger and stronger, and therefore, more effective this network becomes in helping you become empowered.
Keep at it. I know you can do this!
I love you,
PS: If "snowflake" gave you a little twinge because of how some people use it to put other people down, read this post.
PPS: Parts of this exercise is from my self-empowerment and trauma healing course, Wise Peer.
Let's reclaim the term snowflake! Snowflakes are magical and they're unique! Everybody knows that!
We've compared the beauty and uniqueness of individual humans with that of snowflakes for more than a hundred years. I'm not willing to let some upstart with a film camera (you know who you are) take what is good and beautiful and very true and weaponize it to hurt people.
Snowflake is an apt description for us gender diverse people because if there's one thing we all have in common it's that each our experience of gender identity is an utterly unique felt and lived experience. So, let's join together in a loud and proud chorus: "I'm a unique snowflake!"
Henry India Holden
I write about the divineness of life in its many forms. Writer, artist, spiritual director, life coach, tarotist. Nonbinary.