Here is something from the sociologists to think about today: we are born fairly well altruistic and big hearted until consumerism, the 24 hour news cycle and western standards of living turn us into nasty, mean, selfish, worried individuals. What do you think about that?

This is the claim being made by child and adolescent psychotherapist Graham Music who is doing a bit of a publicity push in the Guardian newspaper before releasing his new book at the end of this month called: The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality. Here it is on Amazon for those interested in pre-ordering.  

Music’s argument is this:

“We’re losing empathy and compassion in dealing with other people in our society…There is a lot of evidence that the speed of life and the resultant anxiety have an enormous impact on how we deal with other people. We all know it anecdotally. You live in a dog-eat-dog world and it makes sense to be highly stressed and vigilant to cope with it. From that stress come some really fundamental shifts in behaviour, along with pretty poor outcomes in everything from health to life expectancy and happiness.”

Not only is the result of work-stresses and the constant push to buy more and to compare yourself to others but the shallow meanness in our culture seeps in through more insidious means. For example, a study last year by Michegan University suggested that young people were more socially aggressive thanks to their exposure to the cruelties of reality television.  Graham Music argues that the casual meanness on shows like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent is also an example of how cold-hearted we can be. And how acceptable this cold heartedness can be.

Furthermore, as our speed of life increases – constantly working, buying, making sure that we look our best on Facebook etc, our ability to respond to others in need is negatively affected:

“‘The speed of life has an impact on our altruism,’ said Music. ‘This is going on in schools as well. Stress is seeping into our schools with this heavily academically-based curriculum, an audit culture. I’m really worried about that from the children I see in my clinics.’

Music says there is a desperate need to rethink our materialistic tendencies. ‘A very monetised western world is going to make us more and more lose touch with our social obligations,’ he said.”

I am generally in agreement with Music’s argument so far. I do think that our culture has become far too focussed on money, jobs, accumulation of things and the need to do more and more in the day. We have become more narcissistic and lonely and have less concern for the others around us. However, where the argument gets more interesting is his claim that we are not born selfish. Instead, he argues that studies have shown that toddlers like to help others.

“He points to a series of experiments at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, when a group of 15-month-olds were placed in a room where an adult pretended to need help. ‘There is a proven urge to help. The toddlers love helping, they get an intrinsic reward just from the act, until they start to reward them for that behaviour with a toy. The group of toddlers rewarded ‘extrinsically’ – that is, with a toy – quickly lost interest in helping. The unrewarded children – who don’t know the other group are getting rewards – keep on helping, content with no ulterior reason other than the act of helping.’

Other studies have shown that toddlers feel happier giving treats than receiving them, says Music. ‘Then we have evidence that adolescents asked to do a good deed once a day become less depressed. We’ve evolved to be helpful and to do things without reward. Rewards don’t make anyone happy and something very fundamental is lost when we reward for certain behaviours.”

Now, as the father of a toddler, I am not entirely convinced that children are born thinking that they are at the centre of existence and that one of the biggest parts of parenting is to gently break them away from this thinking. I am not sure that the studies he cites really change that fact. We learn to be altruistic; we train ourselves to put others first and we need to work on that every day of our lives. We very naturally think we are the centre of everything and the most important being in the universe, and to think of others wellbeing is hard. I agree with Music that the current society, at least in the West, does not help us to break out of our destructive self-regard. To constantly put others first is to swim against the current in many respects. But I am not convinced that we are born with this ability that we lose due to our society. I think it exacerbates our natural tendencies. However, overall I think that Music is correct when he states that:

“…but we’ve lost sight of [the fact that rewards don’t make us happy] as we’re suckered into the consumer ethos, the deep insistence that we need that iPhone or that new kitchen to be happy – and we fall for it again and again. Those very powerful drivers of post-industrial capitalism and mass media are brilliant at triggering those needs and, after all, you can’t sell wellbeing.”

We will continue to fall for the marketing ploys until we figure out what we are created for. What is our ultimate end? What is our ultimate good? From 16 centuries ago St Augustine has a solution to the modern dilemma: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...