You’ve definitely experienced this before. On the train, traveling alone, there is a natural order of things. You get on the train, you find the first empty two-seater, and you are presented with a choice. Do I stake my claim on the two seats or do I move in to take a window? In my experience, many – not everyone – will take the aisle seat or put their bag there, maximizing their own space while blocking off anyone else from sitting there.
On my trip to Philly on Friday, I was again astounded by how committed single passengers were to staking their claim on two seaters. An Asian man with his four year old walked by – up the seats, down the seats – he needed a two seater to sit with his child, but no one appeared to be moving. To everyone else, it was not their problem. Many tried to avoid the situation, popping in headphones, closing their eyes to fall asleep, etc. It was the classic diffusion of responsibility.
In Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, a similar example is used to describe how the world looks from “in the box” versus “outside the box”. In short, when people are “in the box” towards others, we cannot see beyond our own needs. Further, we project our negative feelings towards ourselves on those that made us feel this way. For instance, if I noticed the man and boy, but chose not to act because I was working on my computer and didn’t want to be hassled, I might blame the girl who is only reading a book. Perhaps she is lazy, or inattentive, or rude. I might blame the Asian man himself for being the last one on the train – I mean traveling with a kid clearly requires more of a time cushion, right? This is what the Arbinger Institute coined self-deception and we all suffer from it at one point or another.
Thankfully, there is a way out. Putting my own spin on the Arbinger Institute’s explanation, I believe that being mindful is the way out. And, according to ancient wisdom – from Judea-Christian beliefs to Buddhism, the best place to start is with generosity. By recognizing the needs of others, one can use one’s resources – time, effort, attention, money, etc. – help another person. Often the “cost” is small – moving seats to clear space for the man and his son. But the psychological benefit is immensely rewarding.
Generosity until itself is rewarding, and while classical economics and game theory models may fail to account for this, more recent studies have suggested there are deep biological and evolutionary reasons for this. To summarize, as social creatures, a key pillar of our survival as a species is directly related to our ability to co-operate. This isn’t groundbreaking news. We don’t have claws, gnarly teeth, or particularly good camouflage. If we were dropped into the African savannah all alone, I don’t think many besides Bear Grylls would last long at all. It should come as no surprise then that when you are generous, you feel good about it.
In fact, a recent HBS working paper found a relationship between pro-social spending and happiness, with a consistent relationship across 136 countries. These results suggest generosity as a universal value, independent of cultural context. What’s more is that giving even a small amount promotes happiness. As it turns out, beyond a certain level of income, as much as $75K per year, there is no additional “happiness” associated with income. That is, aside from the fact that you may now be able to be more generous in your monetary contributions.
There is still much to learn about the neurological, psychological, and evolutionary bases for generosity. For a second though, think about your own experience or craft an experiment like Sasha Dichter, the Chief Innovation Officer at the Acumen Fund did. It doesn’t have to be grand; I’ve found that even a simple smile after holding the door for someone whose hands are full provides me with the momentary “warm glow” of generosity. I’m sure you have countless examples in your own lives too.
Stepping out of the box through generosity changes the way you may now see others who are around you. In the moments after you give, you have addressed another’s needs and by virtue of the act, you have stepped out of your own way. You gain a moment of awareness, one that can last through practicing generosity regularly. With this awareness, you can now see the world more clearly and achieve your goals more deliberately. More on this next post.