What would happen if….?

The myth that individual prosperity equals happiness:

Beliefs drive us, not our rational mindsets

About 30 years ago, researchers in psychology and neuroscience made a profound discovery: our beliefs are the main driver of our behavior. They came to the conclusion that humans are not the logical, rational beings we would like to think we are. Instead, we form beliefs that can be irrational, illogical and inconsistent, and we behave according to these beliefs. Have you ever wondered why some people do what you might consider “silly things”, not just once, but consistently?

And then I got to thinking, are the beliefs we hold in the developed world the reason we do things that seem to be making such a dark future for ourselves?

What are the beliefs that we hold dear that enable us to do things so destructive for the environment and our common good? What makes us afraid to challenge the status quo? Why do we let others lead us down this dark path?

Most of us do not want the predicted future for ourselves or our children. Yet we have not given up our cars for bicycles and built smaller houses.

It must have something to do with our common beliefs. Perhaps it is because we have been told that we have a right to individual prosperity – this is what happiness and success look like in much of the contemporary world. Perhaps it is because we have been told that we are not supposed to take matters into our own hands, that it is up to the government.

Or perhaps it is that we are repeatedly told that economic growth will solve all problems.

This point was brought out by our federal politicians. We recently had a federal election and every candidate said they would do something about the environmental problems, but ”economic growth had to be first.” And key to that was more oil development. My understanding these two ideas do not fit together well.

Recently, I met a young man who grew up with the belief that we all have a responsibility to economic growth. I happened to sit by a young accountant who went on about how taxes take away initiative, “especially when those taxes are used to support the ‘leaches’ who live off of government welfare. His idea is that every person has a responsibility to contribute to economic prosperity. Everyone can have prosperity if they are not lazy.” This is a common belief that does not bring any of us happiness.

Kooky person… or good neighbour?

I live in rural Canada where not every road is paved and twice a year is pothole season. On one particular road, the potholes were so big and plentiful, the road was hardly passable. It seemed like some could actually swallow your car. After many unanswered pleas to the local government, an enterprising young man decided to take matters into his own hands. He got out his shovel and a donation tin, and went out and started filling in the potholes himself and as cars went by, people would put some money in his tin. Everybody was happy until the police came along and threatened to charge the young man – charge him for being a good citizen. Of course they had others ways of saying it – he was a public hazard and damaging public property.

People don’t think they’re qualified to be a good neighbour

The most amazing experience I had was when I was working to make Windsor Nova Scotia a more socially connected, belonging and caring community. Statistics Canada says that 75% of people have no relationship with their neighbors and we wanted to do something about this. We brought a group of people together and asked them to knock on their neighbors door and say “if you needed any help, you could call on them.”

One in four people said they would not do it because they were not “qualified to be a good neighbour”

Honest to God truth – they felt they had to be certified by a government agency to be a good neighbour. They believed they would get in trouble if they helped their neighbour.

These stories show the power of beliefs in distorting our behavior away from doing what is in the best interest of all of us.

But what if we had a different set of beliefs?

What if we believed that our common good interest was in our personal interest? What if we believed that our governments and businesses should act in such a way that our humanness should be enhanced by their actions and decisions?

Take a moment and think about this. What would happen to our environmental problems if we all acted, including our businesses and governments, for the common good? Would we stay on this self-destructive path that we hope we can survive but expect much hardship even if we do?

If we believed our actions and decisions enhance our collective human spirit, what would be our relationship with technology? How would we relate to our neighbors? How important would it be to upgrade to a more expensive car or a bigger house?

Would our politics be the same if we held that our collective and inclusive wellbeing was the most important thing?

I propose that we do not have to stay on the path we are on, we can choose a different path that leads to greater personal and collective happiness and wellbeing. Choosing this path is both simple and extremely hard.

First of all, it takes all of us as individuals to reflect on the beliefs we hold dear and ask ourselves whether we want to keep them or replace them with a different set of beliefs. Then it takes us to act on those beliefs, both in our every day personal behavior and in our collective behavior of expressing these beliefs to our governments and our businesses.

Businesses will resist until there is enough of us insisting they pay taxes, and act in a way that enhances our human spirit and social norms of caring for each other. Governments will be slow to respond because they only do what will get them elected and keep them financed by big business. But they will change – there are more of us then there are of them and they can not do what they do without us being complicit.

And it starts with you and I questioning whether we have the beliefs that serve us and the future of our children well.

If this post resonated with you, and you’re interested in making your own community a happier place, why not join us at our next Coffee Connections? It’s a virtual meeting place to connect with other citizens who want to change their community for the better, but don’t know where to start.

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