To Save our Species... Be KIND
Science says that as humans, we are an ultra-social species. We are a caretaking species; we have flattened hierarchies (relative to our animal kingdom “cousins”); we are invested in reconciling, forgiveness and maintaining peace; and we are hyper coordinated (for intimate interactions and also for moving in unison). These are a few things that make us human. We have evolved to be kind. I think it’s pretty freakin’ rad that pro-social behavior is so essential for the survival of our species.
Ok, that was a heavy-hitting opening paragraph. Shall we back up a bit? First, I want to make sure we’re on the same page about what “pro-social behavior” means. Pro-social behavior is actions intended to help others, to put them before you. Empathy, compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and altruism are examples of pro-social behavior. Basically, all the things that give us the warm fuzzy feels and restore our faith in humanity.
Now, let’s zero in a bit closer for the purpose of this specific blog post. Let’s look at A L T R U I S M. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkely offers this definition: “Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves.” Essentially, we’re talking about being kind. If there’s a potential risk or cost to our own self – why be altruistic? Well, evolutionary reasons for kindness indicate: 1) we need to be kind for the survival of our offspring, 2) we desire reciprocal altruism, and 3) kindness is actually a * huge * part of the sexual selection process. Yep, it’s true (and scientifically supported)…compassion is super sexy. Ow ow!
Could there be even more reasons to be kind? Of course there are!!! Studies show that in the past 30 years, people in the United States have become lonelier. Also, we have one-third fewer close friends than we did a generation ago; and about 25% of people say they have NO close friends (which is twice as many as a decade ago). The cost of loneliness and isolation is hefty and it’s dangerous. Additionally, there’s a rise in self-focus. Not surprisingly, there’s also an increase in inequity. It is emotionally beneficial to turn * towards * each other. Again, we are built to be an ultra-social species… truly, our survival depends on pro-social engagement. Kindness lessens loneliness, builds a stronger immune system, protects your heart, reduces body aches, and protects against depression.
Studies show that strangers inherently induce some level of stress or anxiety. So how do we ease that in-built stress in order to cooperate with strangers, empathize with one another, and ultimately feel compelled to help a fellow human? [You’ve gotta’ know what I’m going to suggest, right?]
P L A Y!
Play increases empathy. Play allows us to understand others’ perspectives; it’s good for our emotional intelligence. Play gets us outside of ourselves (and our litany of personal challenges and endless “to-do” lists) and reconnects us to fellow humans. And that seems like a mighty step towards altruism. The instinct to play overrides hostility and surpasses territorial inclinations. Play transcends our differences and unites us.
What if we’re like “Nah, I’m good. I have shit to do and goals to crush. Playing nice with others sounds great, but I’m fine, thank you. I’ll just stay in my lane and you stay in yours.” What does it look like when we abandon play and fun and positive social engagement? We get brittle and rigid. Everything feels heavy and serious and we get caught up (and overwhelmed) in our own life. [What I’m trying to say here is that we basically become self-focused assholes who can’t cope.] We essentially put ourselves in a mild form of solitary confinement….at least emotionally. Which, ahem, is how we punish the highest offenders in our society. And it’s dangerous. When we abandon our instincts for pro-social behavior in favor of worrying solely about ourselves and acquiring status and material possessions…we end up with violence, inequity, narcissism, and hate.
Play makes us malleable, open to new possibilities, and gives us the ability to roll with life’s (inevitable) punches. When we feel secure, we are able and willing to help others. If we are feeling “unsafe” (which can also look like anxious, worried..etc) our likelihood of helping others is probably fairly low. What I’m trying to say here, friends, is play is essential – not just for our individual health and happiness. Play is social glue. And since connection is the cornerstone of humanity – if we can’t stick together, we are in some serious trouble. So, smile at strangers and look for opportunities to help others. YOU are mighty! Compassion is infectiously contagious…and although your efforts may feel like a drop in the bucket, the ripple of your generosity and kindness is immeasurable.
“In play, we learn how to deal with wins and losses with grace. In the end, we learn to shake hands and let the emotions go.”
Stuart Brown, MD