Answer this question quickly without giving it much thought: Is the human species inherently a compassionate, constructive species destined to leave the Earth better than we found it?
A quick perusal of the daily news surely suggests that, though we have many noble qualities, the current state of human progress leaves some doubt as to our destiny. Climate change is accelerating, the ocean is drowning in tons of plastic garbage, the coral reefs are dying, and many scientists say that humanity is about to cause the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history. Global terrorism is growing, civil unrest is widespread, and nationalism is rising. The threat of nuclear proliferation is rising after decades of keeping the lid on weapons of mass destruction.
Yet the history of the human species suggests that we have become the most dominant inhabitants of Earth precisely because of our unparalleled capacity to cooperate even across large numbers of strangers spanning continents. We are often willing to make great sacrifices for the good of the larger tribe, as evidenced by acts of heroism both large and small. So what is holding humanity back from achieving our highest possibility?
Mental Mindsets Holding Humanity Back
It is my contention that the answer to the question of humanity’s future will be determined by whether we can overcome five mental mindsets that undermine our collective happiness. I call them the five thieves of humanity’s future.
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There is little doubt that the mental mindsets each of us has influences our personal happiness and achievements. In my new book, The Five Thieves of Happiness, I explore five mental thought patterns that keep us from experiencing the happiness that we all seek. It is my contention that these same five mental patterns are robbing humanity of our future. If these thieves continue running our collective house, our future as a species is questionable and our impact on the great experiment of life on Earth is likely to be a negative one. If we can tame them, then we may yet become a positive force for future generations.
The Thief Named Control
This mental mindset keeps us wanting to avoid having our point of view challenged. We want to be right rather than learn. Humans don’t like dissonance for the most part. This need to be right keeps us seeking information that confirms our existing bias and helps explain why we will read “fake news” that agrees with us rather than be challenged by real facts that might force us to alter our views.
This desire to be right rather than learn is a major impediment to our progress. As a species we face multiple complex problems that require us to seek to learn rather than prove we are right. Resistance to the need to make changes for the sake of sustainability can be linked to the fact that facing the realization that we are ruining the planet makes us feel out of control. The easiest way to stay in control is to pretend everything is fine when it is so obviously not; there is good reason that Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film was titled An Inconvenient Truth.
The Thief Named Comfort
This thief keeps us locked into old patterns of thinking and behaving even after the outer reality has changed around us. Neuroscience has shown us that humans are truly creatures of habit. We tend to keep doing things a certain way long after the habit serves us. There are two prime examples of the way this thief is robbing humanity of our future.
For most of human history our main challenge was conquering nature. After all, nature was very large and we were very few. But because of our growing numbers and advancing technology we have become the largest force shaping Earth. Though reality has changed, many people continue to believe that humans are too few to change nature and still see nature as abundant. Our main challenge now is to help nature, not to dominate it, but the old pattern is still dominant.
Another example relates to terrorism. In a time when wars were mostly between nations, military might was the obvious and logical path to stability. But the greatest threats now are not wars between nations but wars between ideologies. Even one radicalized person can wreak meaningful destruction. In this war of ideas, we must learn to build bridges but are stuck in a pattern where we think force is the answer. A simple example is Aarhus, a city in Denmark that took a different path by welcoming back potential radicals who went to Syria. Unlike most places in Europe that treated the returning citizens as criminals, this city welcomed them back and offered practical help in finding employment as well as a place to live (including the offer of a mentor). Many dubbed it “hug a terrorist,” when in fact it was rooted in sound psychology since humiliation is highly rated to radicalization. There have been no terrorist acts there.
The Thief Named Conceit
This mindset wants us focused on our species, our tribe, and our generation. This focus on the small self is not serving us. The gap between the rich and poor is growing, nationalism is rising even while the commons that we share, such as the climate and oceans, have grown. Rather than focusing on the good of the whole, we find ourselves focused on the ego.
Just as individuals are happier when serving rather than focusing on themselves, so all life’s purpose is to improve and extend the experiment of life. This is something nature knows but that humanity has lost touch with. Our conceit has left us thinking we can thrive while the rest of nature declines, thinking our tribe can be wealthy without helping others gain a better life, and using up Earth’s bounty in one small generation. Unless we overcome the thief named conceit, humanity cannot thrive.
Companies must also overcome this conceit mindset since business is a subset of societal health, not the other way around. Sustainable business is built on a mindset quite the opposite of conceit – that of service. When a company focuses on having a purpose that serves the greater good of both customers and society, now and in the future, only then is a brand truly sustainable. A company focused only on its own interests will neither be a magnet for talent nor ultimately attract loyal customers. The same can be said for a species.
The Thief Named Consumption
Consumption focuses us on possessions as the prime definition of ‘the good life’ especially at the societal level. We measure GNP and GDP as a proxy for the good life even while rampant consumption drives ecological damage, keeps us focused on working hard to buy things that don’t bring happiness and has created a human system that requires more consumption for society to thrive.
But we are not thriving and only a few brave places such as Bhutan are starting to use Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure of health. Happiness has always been an internal construct rather than a result of consuming anything outside oneself. Yet our entire economic system is based on consumption. Unless we deal with this thief and redefine the good life along with changing an economic system which values consumption above all, humanity will remain on a troubled path.
In many ways, business has driven our focus on consumption as a source of happiness. One of the major challenges facing the sustainable business movement is how to remain profitable while helping to define “the good life” in a way that doesn’t focus on unsustainable consumption. This will not be an easy task. A good starting place can be found in efforts such as Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign and Whole Foods’ decision to only sell sustainable seafood. Sharing economy models such as Airbnb and Uber show the business opportunity in meeting human needs through less consumption and the use of existing resources. Surely there is great opportunity for brands that can help consumers tame this thief.
The Thief Named Coveting
The final thief focuses us on what others have, putting us in a place of resentment rather than gratitude towards our own lives or others. Rather than seeking a way for all of us to succeed, we focus on others as an impediment to our happiness. This becomes fertile ground to blame immigrants, foreign countries, and other ethnic groups which we know historically often leads to genocide and greater focus on national as well as ethnic identity often ending in violence. In the 1930s, the Nazis scapegoated the Jews as the source of Germany’s economic woes. Only a true appreciation of our differences can put humanity on a path to a productive future.
The truth is that only a world that works for all will be sustainable. Growing gaps between the rich and poor will create unstable societies, as well as foster anti-global trends such as Brexit.
How Can We Stop the Five Thieves?
The best way to stop the five thieves is to first name them. That which cannot be named cannot be tamed. These thieves are running wild in our current society and we must recognize that control, comfort, conceit, consumption, and coveting are not humanity’s future. Only when we see these thought patterns for what they are can we begin to change.
Then we must replace them with new ways of thinking. Control must be transformed and replaced with openness and dialogue. Comfort must give way to a willingness to challenge our patterns of subduing nature or believing that military might create security. Conceit must give way to a focus on creating a world that works for all; and where humanity sees that we are here to serve nature, not the other way around. Consumption as a prime metric of human success must be replaced with new ways of measurement that put wellbeing at the center of our communal life. Finally, we must replace blaming others for our misfortune with a true desire for all to thrive.
Adapted from the book The Five Thieves of Happiness (Berrett-Koehler, 2017)