Altruism: The Power of Altruism to Change Yourself and the World

By Matthieu Ricard

Book excerpt courtesy of Little, Brown and Company. © 2015

It is obvious that, for those deprived of basic means
of subsistence and who struggle to feed their children,
the act of doubling or tripling the resources available to
them could change everything and provide them with an
undreamt of feeling of satisfaction. But, once the threshold of
material comfort has been crossed, increasing wealth does not
lead to a corresponding increase in quality of life.

People in Nigeria consider themselves as happy as people
in Japan, despite their GDP per capita being twenty-five times
lower. According to Richard Layard, professor at London School
of Economics: “This paradox applies just as well to the United
States as it does to England and Japan. … We have more food,
more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating,
more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nice work, and,
above all, better health. Yet we are not happier... If we want
people to be happier, we really have to know what conditions
generate happiness and how to cultivate them.”

Plenty of other factors are as, if not more, important than
wealth. Trust in all its various forms is one of them. Denmark
is, according to numerous studies, one of the countries where
people are most satisfied with their living conditions. It is not
one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but there is very little
poverty and inequality.

This satisfaction can be explained, among other things,
by the high level of trust that people feel toward each other,
including toward strangers and institutions: people’s natural
instinct is to think that a stranger is kind. This trust goes hand in
hand with a very low level of corruption.

As with anything, wealth can be destructive or constructive.
It can provide a powerful way of doing good for others, but it
can also drive us to wrong others. What can you do with
four billion dollars that you cannot do with two? Very little
for yourself, but a great deal for others. Even if your own needs
are largely satisfied, many people are in desperate need of help.

Jules Renard, the acerbic and somewhat pessimistic writer,
was only too right when he exclaimed: “If money doesn’t make
you happy, give it away ” He might have added: “And you will be

Indeed it is proven that giving is better for you emotionally
than receiving. This has been demonstrated in research
carried out by the Canadian psychologist Elizabeth Dunn when
she compared the level of well-being among people who had
spent money on themselves with those who had spent it on
other people: “We found that people who reported spending
more money on others were happier.”

This phenomenon has been noted both in large-scale philanthropy
and small five dollar donations, thanks to a study carried out in 136
countries, where each time an average of 1,300 people have been
investigated. There is therefore a very poor correlation between money
and happiness, which can, according to Dunn and fellow
psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, in part
be explained by the way in which people spend their money.

Leaning on quantitative research, they suggest that, in order
to find happiness, compulsive consumers would be better off
pursuing experiences rather than material goods, use their
money to benefit others instead of themselves, cease comparing
themselves to others on a material level (which only feeds
envy or vanity), and to pay very close attention to the happiness
of others.