Altruism and development

Diego writes*

In the West, we have tended to focus a lot more on the outside (external) rather than the internal. This has brought amazing outcomes in the material dimension of things: revolutionary technology, high living standards, etc. At the same time, this overly focus on the external has left an untapped potential for developing the internal. This area of inquiry has been left to religions and spirituality to take care of, and it has been seen as separate (or tried to be separated) from economy and politics. But, as we will see, the internal and external are deeply connected.

There are huge untapped potentials for focus and investment in the internal development of individuals because of the huge benefits it can bring to individual wellbeing, societal wellbeing, and the productivity and capabilities of individuals (human capital) in the long term, which is pretty much all we care about.

Of all the areas of internal development/growth, one that receives close to no attentions is that of motivations. We assume that people’s motivations are self-arising and unchanging. For example, in the field of political economy, motivations are taken as extrinsic (given). When creating a model using methodolocial individualism you take preferences, believes, environemnt to model individuals’ and groups’ decisions, but it is never considered that it might be possible to manage/change preferences (motivations). But they can be affected.

For example, in the Buddhist tradition there are practices to influence our motivations. The simple explanation is the following. We are motivated by our emotions and thoughts, so if we are able to feel more of a certain emotion, we will be more motivated by it. Certain Buddhist practices, like one from the Tibetan tradition called “Tonglen”, work to make certain wholesome emotions (love and compassion) more accessible and for individuals to feel them more often. It has been found that feeling works like a muscle, the more you feel it, the more accessible is this experience (as with gratitude, for example). So, the Tonglen practice works by simply triggering these emotions time and again so that they become more accessible to us.

These practices not only can make us better human being overall (think relationships and teamwork), and improve our wellbeing, but, as we are strengthening our motivations, these practices can make individuals more productive and therefore bring about better economic outcomes. Bettering our motivations can definitely better society as they bring huge positive externalities to all of society. So maybe, just maybe, government should incentivize it, and, for example, subsidize organizations sharing these practices and make it part of the school curriculum.

Bottom Line: There is huge untapped potential in the area of internal development. Practices for generating more altruistic motivations have the potential to create a better society for all. These practices improve personal wellbeing and society as a whole.


* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Altruism and development”

  1. I was left wondering about how you would suggest to implement this newer focus on internal development, which you will probably discuss in your paper. Because it is based on Buddhism, having it implemented by a government seems tricky (secularity and such), so I was wondering what your initial ideas are on working around this, how do you think governments could frame it concretely without also sounding to abstract?

    1. It’s tricky of course. But in the end, these practices simply work, and the religious things around them are not necessarily important. Western psychology is definitely catching up on their benefits. So it should be no problem to frame it without religious words, and backed by western science.

  2. Hi Diego, I really liked your blogpost and think this is a super interesting topic! Here are some thoughts/questions I had while reading:
    (1) What actually is the “internal”?
    (2) When you talked about the “untapped potentials for focus and investment in the internal development of individuals,” I am a bit confused as to what it means to invest in your internal development? What would this look like? That being said (let us pretend that I have rightly interpreted what you meant by investing in the internal), I was also thinking that within the context of degrowth, wouldn’t investments in the internal be a great way to invest money into non resource-intensive industries? Some readings talked about the shift of investing/expanding service industries rather those catering to our consumerist needs, and investing in ourselves (in the internal) could maybe be a way to do this? What do you think?
    (3) Also, you end with the statement that practices such as those that make us more in touch with our thoughts and emotions can “bring about better economic outcomes,” but it would definitely also bring about better environmental outcomes (and thus by extension, economic ones). In DPM (which you’re also taking haha) my team is working on a project about behavioural change and so I’ve read a lot of literature about factors that can influence our behaviour. If this is something that could be useful in your essay, send me a message and I can send you some of the sources/papers we used!
    (4) Finally, I would just give the general advice to make sure that in your essay you make sure your analysis is quite “explicit” and maybe give more concrete examples (I get why you didn’t do it here yet cause of word count limitations). For example, this following sentence makes sense to me but I am not sure I am making all the connections in terms of *why* practices such as the Tonglen tradition cause this to happen: “These practices not only can make us better human being overall (think relationships and teamwork), and improve our wellbeing, but, as we are strengthening our motivations, these practices can make individuals more productive and therefore bring about better economic outcomes.”.
    Hope this helped! 🙂

  3. Dear Diego,
    this is a very interesting angle you are taking. Especially since I am a novice to this subject, I do feel a sense of utmost respect to this topic. While I was reading this articles a thought popped into my mind. How would such practices influence collective action? On a superficial level, I would argue that promoting organisations that publicise the the benefits of human well-being would have two direct effects: promote social capital as seen from Putnam’s definition, but more importantly, redefine goals, which consequently might have beneficial effects on how policy and much more is done. I think this is clearly worthwhile exploring.

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