Tag Archives: Altruism

How Not to Donate Blood

I went to the bloodbank yesterday for the first time since I’ve been living in Singapore. I’d made an appointment, done due diligence on the past year of my travel history, and timed the donation so that it wouldn’t completely throw my fitness training plan. It’s been years since I donated blood (I used to donate a few times a year in the US) so I was nervous, but I really wanted to do something good. I was looking forward to it.

And then, as has happened once before, my donation was denied because my iron was lower than the Red Cross requires. I’m a vegetarian and this really should not have been a surprise.

The surprise was how I felt when I left with a packet of iron tablets from the nurse. I was really, really upset. I was disappointed not being able to donate and a little embarrassed at the whole rigmarole of paperwork and a fingerstick for naught. I had really wanted to do a good thing and I was disappointed that I couldn’t. But I was also keenly aware that it’s not actually about me, which caused further upset feelings for being upset because it’s not about me! And here I was, making it about me. I didn’t like that, either.

As my students and I study in psychology, there is theory to suggest that people do good in order to make themselves feel good and not actually because it’s the right thing to do. Altruism might not be so altruistic. While I am aware of this and aware of how our minds are wired to help us maintain self-esteem, I did not appreciate the recognition that I am no better than anyone else.

The thought that occurred to me as I left was telling, as well: Now I have to go plant trees or something.

My students and I talk about why doing something, regardless of the brain mechanisms encouraging us to do it, is better than doing nothing. I firmly believe this is true. But it took me several hours last evening to accept that I was feeling upset and to accept that my brain was doing what our brains are designed to do. I’d like to be better than that.

Overall, I found the whole experience of my reaction pretty interesting. It led me to a predictable conclusion, but one that is worth sharing: If the point is to do something good, do something good. If the point is to feel good, recognise it. And then do something good anyway.

A Toolkit to Improve the World

In much of my past writing on education, I discuss the need for experts at living who are caring, compassionate global citizens who aim to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Experts at living would be creative and critical thinkers, effective problem-solvers, and dedicated to altruism in order to benefit humanity. Reframing schools in terms of problem-solving would expose students to the myriad problems and suffering that exist, and provide them with experience and practice developing their expertise. Dealing with these complex problems would have the added benefit of bringing real moral, ethical, and global issues into our classrooms and conversations. This would also create opportunities for dialogue, an essential aspect of conflict resolution.

In order to build a better world and create experts at living, schools need to provide students with a clear set of values that will act as their “toolkit” for making the world a better, more peaceful place.

The values that I will discuss below – cooperation, altruism, empathy, compassion, and caring – come from an unfinished book that I began writing with a colleague over a year ago. We’ve taken a hiatus that was longer than the time spent writing, but I would like to restart; I think we have some important things to say. Consequently, this blog post is intended to introduce to some of our ideas to a real audience to gauge how our work resonates and where we need additional thought. For purposes of the post, I’ll leave out the research (though there’s extensive evidence supporting all of these ideas) and include a list of further reading at the end.

The Values “Toolkit”

Neuroscience tells us that humans have evolved cooperative behaviors in order to survive as a species. Being able to communicate with each other, work together, and help one another has made the growth of civilizations possible. It has also created the prosperity that is far beyond anything seen with other species, yet unevenly distributed across the world.

Learning to get along with others is nearly always part of early schooling, often beginning much earlier than formal education. We teach very young children to share and play with others. We want them to work together to accomplish tasks. However, at the same time, we also begin instilling values of competition, with an emphasis on dominating others and being the best of the group. These competitive ideas exist in contrast to the cooperation that has created human society. We need to decide what message we want to send, which ought to be the message that will have a more positive impact on our world.

With cooperation as a value explicit in schooling, we could ensure that children left school understanding that cooperation is what makes the world a better place. We need classrooms, lessons, activities, and interactions that cultivate cooperative behaviors and emphasize the importance of cooperation. This way, students would come to understand that their actions can help us all have better lives.

In order to make the world a better place, we need to help our young people develop into adults who identify as helpers, people who believe that assisting others is their responsibility. We know that children and young people behave altruistically and help others without prompting; there is empirical evidence alongside individual personal experience to prove it. As social creatures dependent on one another, it is also in the best interests of all people to help those around them.

Working together and helping those in need generally makes people feel good about themselves and what they’re doing. People of all ages look for volunteer opportunities. Knowing that, it is only logical that altruism should play a central role in our classrooms in order to purposefully develop it as a value that we deem important. We must capitalize on the helping tendencies already present in young children to help students see that their altruistic actions can positively impact and ultimately change society.

It is deeply part of what makes us human to be able to both cooperate and show concern for the well-being of others. Without these truly human qualities, we would not survive as either a species or individuals. Recognizing this allows us to more fully embrace them and encourage these values within schools and education. We want to build a world that emphasizes deep, meaningful altruistic relationships with others so that we are all better off.

Empathy requires us to put ourselves in another’s shoes and act accordingly, whether as a result of our feelings about the other or about ourselves in a reversed situation. Empathy takes practice. Students need to first learn to recognize that others may be feeling a certain way and then determine how to respond in a variety of circumstances. Finally, they need to learn how to communicate with those around them, particularly in cases of disagreement. Empathy will help guide students’ understanding of one another during periods of conflict, which will have an overall positive impact on their interactions.

Therefore, putting students in situations in classrooms and amongst peers that work to develop kindness will enhance the empathy that they feel for others. This will ultimately impact the choices students make when making decisions that affect those around them. Empathy also plays a role in forgiveness, which is clearly tied to creating a better and more peaceful world. If we are able to forgive others for their actions against us, we will be more inclined to cooperate and work towards the benefit of all humanity.

Practicing empathy is an essential aspect of developing citizens who work to enhance the well-being of others and strive to make the world a better and more peaceful place for all. It forces us to consider others’ needs and the value that each individual has in society. If we want our students to develop values of empathy and caring for one another, adults must demonstrate them as a central tenet of our daily interactions. We need to act in ways that emphasize our human-ness, which means working to help each other in all that we do.

Compassion for all living beings requires us to encourage students to look beyond their everyday lives and towards the world as a whole. We need classrooms, books, lessons, and activities that emphasize the importance of care and compassion for others, as well as the desire to cultivate happiness for others. Our students need to become more open-minded and more concerned with those around them. The more we do in schools to help students think, feel, and act compassionately, the more they will behave that way on their own.

Emphasizing compassion in our students is an essential aspect of developing citizens who care about others. Students must come to understand that they are part of an interdependent human society. Thus, their actions and behaviors have an impact on others and on the world. With this foundation, having compassion for others will positively impact students’ work in and outside of school to make the world a better and more peaceful place.

If we want our students to become citizens who participate in democratic societies, work towards peace, and care for all sentient beings, we need to help them understand that their actions now can and do have an impact on the future. Focusing on how to alleviate suffering can and should be an element of daily activities in schools. Recognizing the role that compassion plays in improving the world means that it should be nurtured and developed to help us reframe education to create a better and more peaceful world.

The necessity of caring for both others and oneself is vital if we are working to solve the world’s biggest, most pressing, and most important problems. We cannot solve these problems if we operate solely along individualistic lines. We must teach students to care about others if we want to make any impact at all. Care must be infused as a value throughout our education system as well as our society.

Creating cultures in school that mirror our hopes for society means that there will be congruence between what we communicate to students and what they actually see and experience. Far too often, there is little to no follow-through on the messages that we claim to send. If caring is not a central tenet of how students are treated and how they treat one another, we cannot shift schools into a system where we focus on the good of humanity. This is important for all students in all communities, but especially in circumstances where school provides the caring that might be lacking in other environments. All students need to believe that just as they are cared for, they can care for others.

We want our students to live in a world that is better than our own, which means that we must emphasize caring among, between, and for others in all that we do. This is how we will ensure that students leave school with the qualities that make us human. We need to emphasize caring in order to create a society and culture that value all sentient beings and collectively seek to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

All sentient beings deserve to live in a peaceful, sustainable world with minimal suffering. With their central role in developing the next generation of leaders, schools are particularly suited to this task. Creating a better world is far more worth our time than assessing students’ abilities to take multiple-choice tests. Educators should embrace this responsibility and seek to promote it in their schools.

We live in a world that is changing faster than the world has ever changed, and we are currently not providing our students with the tools to work within the new world that we will all inhabit before we know it. A guiding framework of core values – cooperation, altruism, empathy, compassion, and caring – can act as a starting point for schools and education systems that are truly dedicated to improving society.

Further Reading

Building Peace: What’s Missing in the Definition

It has recently come to my attention that my use of the word “peace” extends far beyond the colloquial definition of “nonviolence”. A friend suggested that I write about my broader view of peace in order to provide context to my blog posts on peacebuilding in the classroom. So far, I’ve written about building peace as the purpose of education, redefining masculinity and femininity, use of words and language around students, and specific classroom situations that highlight the need for increased attention to peace. The purpose of this post is to clarify what peace means to me and how I envision a better, more peaceful world.

When I asked my students to define the word peace, most of them replied that peace means nonviolence, or the absence of war. They’re only partially correct. Merriam-Webster defines peace in four ways:

  • a state of tranquility or quiet: as
    • freedom from civil disturbance
    • a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom
  • freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
  • harmony in personal relations
  • a state or period of mutual concord between governments or a pact of agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity

The bolded definitions above are what I see as missing from much of our conception of what peace is and how it plays a role in everything that we do on a daily basis, as well as everything we are. Seeking freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions, whether as an individual or working to do so with others, is a peaceful act. Working towards harmony in personal relations is a peaceful act.

It is those acts that are often missing from our interactions, society, and wider discussion of what it means to develop a peaceful world.

Going Further
I propose expanding this definition, however. I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world.

The keystone is the last piece that goes into an arch during construction. The keystone holds the rest of the arch into position and allows it to bear weight. Without the keystone, the arch is unstable and falls. Without peace, we cannot build a better world.

We have to want a society that allows all people to be free from any sort of oppression, far beyond that of thoughts or emotions. That means working to reduce causes of suffering, including poverty, homelessness, preventable disease, hunger, and lack of clean water. The same is true for developing harmony in personal relations. We need to act with kindness, compassion, and caring towards all others, whether we know them or not. This would open the possibility for dialogue as a way of resolving conflicts, which is an aspect of the “nonviolence” definition of peace. These behaviors need to become part of social norms on local and global scales if we want to develop a better world.

A broader definition of peace also requires concern for the environment. The purpose of peace among humanity is to create a world that is better and more sustainable than the world we have today. Being peaceful in actions towards the environment, working to protect and preserve Earth’s existing resources, and developing technology like renewable energy are all essential components of creating a better world for all. As Planetwalker John Francis explains in his TED Talk, “I learned about people, and what we do and how we are. And environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”

Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.

Do we treat the environment peacefully? Or are we destructive, harmful, greedy, competitive, aggressive, and violent in our actions towards the planet? What does that say about how we view sentient life?

Peace and Sustainable Development
At the end of last school year, I spent a few days discussing the UN Sustainable Development Goals with my grade nine students.


Pairs of students chose a goal to research. They prepared presentations to teach the rest of the class what their goal means, work in progress towards the goal, and ways that students might be able to get involved in advancing the goal.

The way I see it, all of these goals reflect a peaceful world in which we care about those around us. The state of tranquility or quiet in Merriam-Webster’s definition will be realized when we end poverty and prevent diseases, assure that Maslow’s basic needs are met, and all humanity is guaranteed a financial safety net that provides the freedom to make choices, create, explore, develop, and achieve.

When we decide that we want to develop an age of sustainable development, we are choosing peace. Developing a peaceful world requires us to commit to treating those around us with dignity, and actively work to help all people increase overall well-being. Altruistic action is necessary towards humanity and towards the environment. These are inherently peaceful actions because they support those around us in the aim of improving our world for all. As Matthieu Ricard explains in Altruism, “In essence, altruism does indeed reside in the motivation that animates one’s behavior. Altruism can be regarded as authentic so long as the desire for the other’s welfare constitutes our ultimate goal, even if our motivation has not yet been transformed into actions.” This is how we will build and maintain a better world for ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity. Choosing peace in this context requires active commitment to developing a sustainable world.

Truly choosing peace means looking at the world and its people and cultivating an attitude that reflects the messages we want to send. I think of peace as a state of mind and a way of being, which is what I try to explore with my students. It’s not enough to claim that we want peace for our world. We have to act, be, and think peacefully in order to make that world a reality.

That is the world I am working to build. I invite you to join the conversation about how to create our better, more peaceful sustainable world.

There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful. – Dalai Lama