Under the current global circumstances, understanding how to maintain a cooperative and cohesive mind set within a population, can help politicians and scientists to broach difficult policies and rules in a way that will foster togetherness and community spirit, rather than a divisive contrary response from the general public.
Altruism is regarded by neuroscientists and psychologists as an important part of social cooperation. Having a society that is prepared to sacrifice something small for the good of the whole is a desirable outcome, especially in these dark and troubled times.
According to Fehr and Gintis (2007), cooperation is defined as ‘one individual pays a cost to others to receive a benefit.’ The cost could be material, emotional or physical, from as little as a verbal compliment to cheer someone up to the donation of a proportion of a salary to charity. Scans of test subjects, suggests that for every act of altruism or cooperation, the reward centres in the brain are activated, giving one a sense of mild pleasure or fulfilment.
There are many factors which are known to impact how we perceive altruism, most of which have been researched extensively. Rand and colleagues (2014) proved that placing time pressures over decisions to help, will often result in greater levels of charitable donations. Declerck and others (2014) discovered that inhaling oxytocin significantly improved levels of cooperation.
Other studies have concluded that social stimuli or cues will drastically affect whether a person is likely to be cooperative. For example, just knowing whether an individual has a history of kindness and cooperation, will contribute to another returning the favour. It’s almost as though we have a built-in notion of ‘paying it forward’. We give freely expecting nothing in return in the hope that should we experience difficulties in the future, someone will do the same for us.
That is how social cohesion works. In terms of survival, evolution values group harmony by giving us the tools with which to improve our community spirit. We are highly social creatures, building and fostering relationships, using complex language to communicate and developing expressions and feelings to analyse and empathise with others in our sphere.
It makes sense therefore, to embrace those skills and harness them for all they’re worth. The greater our ability to cooperate, the more social glue is available to those who are suffering the most. This is where mindful meditation plays its part in raising the cooperation quotient of a population.
Mindfulness is in itself a form of mental training. It aims to improve our attention, focus, and emotional resilience while reducing our cognitive decline. Many clinical psychologists are now including mindfulness training with their patients’ therapy. This has resulted in a wealth of new studies surrounding meditation.
Analysis of clinical data has shown that mindfulness meditation, whether that be ‘focused attention’ or ‘loving-kindness’ forms of the practice, both have a positive impact on anxiety, depression, stress and pain regulation. Until recently, no one had related those methods to altruism and cooperation levels.
Based on an earlier study protocol, Sage Iwamoto and colleagues, subjected a group of 326 volunteers to either a simple online donation game or a control activity. Those playing the game, were measured on their willingness to donate a portion of their participation grant to charity. Of the original group, half were first subjected to a short video session of mindfulness meditation, while the other half watched a benign video.
The findings were staggering. Those playing the game who had first been exposed to the meditation session, donated more than 2.6 times that of the non-meditators. Their study also broke down the results according to other demographics, where they discovered that those who did not attend college and those under the age of 25, were the least altruistic in their donations.
The implications for society as a whole are profound. It suggests that an individual’s response to external stimuli can be manipulated. Advertisements for charitable foundations could theoretically be based on mindfulness training practices, triggering a 2.6 times greater level of empathy for the average viewer.
It also opens wide the possibility that humans can control the capacity to be generous and cooperative, effectively regulating empathy and altruism according to the behavioural conditioning they have been exposed to in the past. If a child is raised in an altruistic environment, they could well be influenced in later life to donate more if it is in the interests of collective survival.
And therein lies the rub. While population cohesiveness and cooperation are critical in global events such as war or a pandemic, it is also open to abuse. We need everyone in every country to act responsibly and to take care of the most vulnerable in society, but we also need to be protected from those who might exploit the good nature of those altruistic individuals sacrificing their own wellbeing for those who do not reciprocate.
Regular meditation is also known to switch off the ‘me’ centres in the brain, while activating those regions that induce feelings of togetherness. If the balance shifts from a majority of cooperative and altruistic members within a society to that of self-centred masses, we are all truly lost.
Barring rare exceptions, there are no disadvantages to meditative practices. It is the one universal health benefit that is truly free and available to everyone on this planet. If you find yourself struggling with stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and fear, try just five minutes a day and see how much better you can cope after just a month.
Please, look after one another and stay healthy and safe.