Is this why you're acting selfishly?

Is this why you're acting selfishly?

A group of students is asked to walk to another building to deliver a speech. They encounter a man slumped in a doorway, coughing and groaning. Unbeknownst to the students, the man is a hired actor. This Princeton University experiment found that students who possessed one particular thing were six times more likely to help than those who didn’t.

Did the helpers have religious faith? Extroversion? Stronger ethics? Two X chromosomes? Frosted donuts for breakfast? None of the above. They had time. Sixty-three percent of the students who were given ample time to get to their appointment stopped to help, versus 10% of those who were told they were late.[1]

In other words, haste stifles our charitable instinct, our Inner Giver.

If this is the case, modern work life might be driving our Inner Givers to extinction. Many of us live in a perennial scurry. We rush from a meeting to the emails that piled up while we met, to a critical project, to the emails that again piled up, to another meeting. Our work hours are so compressed that our Inner Giver cannot find a place to peek its head. We, therefore, miss daily opportunities to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

With our Inner Givers squelched, we are weakened. We are less productive, less satisfied with our jobs, less healthy and less happy (learn more about the Inner Giver’s effect on productivity and wellbeing in this post, on job satisfaction in this post and on happiness in this post).

So, what’s the solution?

The obvious fix is to prune our schedules. We can leave 15 unscheduled minutes in between meetings. We can take a moment before we dive into a project to ask our cubicle mate how their day is going. We can eliminate non-important tasks from our to-do lists. You get the idea. These time management adjustments will create openings to do good. Or not.

Sometimes the source of our problem is a lot more complex: our heads.

Availability is as much a state of mind as a measure of uncommitted time. Of course, how much we cram into our day affects available time. But let’s face it, many of us habitually create busyness. Even when we finish a task early, we fill what could have been a respite with the next task in the queue. We’re fixated on what remains undone, on the next action that moves us toward completion. Yet, something will always remain undone. There is no precious future when you tie up the last loose end. The next big accomplishment won’t make you happier, at least not for long. Completion is a fable.

To get off the treadmill of to do’s, we need to follow the advice of the author and wonderfully wise soul, Pema Chodron. We need to “abandon any hope of fruition,” per the Buddhist mind training or Lojon.[2] Of course, in the practical realm, letting go of all striving for a better future is both impossible and ill-advised. Yet, escaping our tyrannical treadmill for a few minutes a day helps. How might we do this? By meditating.

Yes, like seemingly everybody else spouting any type of advice, I’m pushing meditation. Believe me, I’m as weary of the over-hyped “m” word as anybody. But, darn, the evidence that meditation frees our Inner Givers is too strong to disregard. Several studies find a direct link between meditation and empathy. Researchers have even seen, via MRI’s, that meditation grows the area of the brain’s grey matter related to compassion.[3]

By meditation, I mean sitting quietly and noticing without judgment one simple thing, like your breathing or the horizon. Or rather, trying to. It won’t quite work. Your attention will stray. When it does, bring it back to the one thing. It’s that simple. You don’t have to twist your legs into a pretzel, chant, wear a robe, empty your mind or believe in the Buddha. Most of the research documenting the positive effects of mediation is based on 20 or more minutes a day. Yet, in my experience, even five minutes transforms my day. The internet is overflowing with meditation guidance. Find what works for you and do it. If you want a recommendation, I suggest Tonglon meditation as taught by Chodron.

Chronic haste is inherently unhealthy, but it also exiles one of your most powerful and fulfilling forces: your Inner Giver. Bring spaciousness to your schedule, especially at work, any way you can. You will be more whole and fulfilled.


[1] J.M. Darley C.D. Batson. “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 197327(1), 100-108.

[2] Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Shambhala. 2003.

[3] Britta K. Hölzela, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gardand and Sara W. Lazara. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. Volume 191, Issue 1, 30 January 2011, Pages 36-43.

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One Response

  1. Bea,
    Great post!
    I have experienced peace and joy when I take the time to be kind and considerate with others.

    I like to take time to pray every morning and afternoon. The quiet time permits me to wind down, think, be grateful for all my blessings and of course ask God for help!

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