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What the World Needs Now

One of the joys of growthbusting has been the discovery that living lighter on the planet is very consistent with other values I’ve come to embrace in my quest to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. A constant goal in my life is to be present in the moment, stepping out of the frantic thought patterns that come with life in pursuit of the high-consumption American Dream. Rick Heller has made this connection and has created a website, www.seeingtheroses.org, and a series of videos to help others discover joyful living doesn’t require an iPad, iPod, iPhone, iMac, a Lexus and weekends in Cabo or Vegas. Today’s commentary in our Limits to Growth 40th anniversary series is from Rick.

What the World Needs Now

The 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, made the prediction that continuous economic growth was not sustainable, and if pursued would result in a deterioration in the ability of the Earth to sustain human life in the 21st century. After 40 years, it is still too early to know whether this prediction will be accurate. Nevertheless, climate change and other warning signs suggest it would be wise to identify alternative ways to satisfy people’s aspirations that don’t depend on an ever-expanding use of natural resources.

May I suggest that in place of economic growth we substitute psychological growth—starting with love. That may seem soft and impractical, but to quote from another classic of the 1970s, TV’s The Six-Million Dollar Man, “We have the technology.”

The problem with psychology has been that it’s a soft science, burdened with competing theories lacking validation. Developments in neuroscience, however, are hardening psychology by allowing scientists to peer inside the brain and examine what happens as we pursue various mental strategies. Technology is not just machines made of steel or silicon; improvements to the brain’s “operating system” are also technology.

One strategy now being studied is a practice derived from Buddhism called metta, from an ancient Indian word translated as loving-kindness. In metta practice, you first evoke loving feelings by dwelling on someone whom you love without reservation—perhaps a grandparent, a child, a pet. Then you shift your attention to a person to whom you’re indifferent—say the person who serves you coffee at Starbucks—and eventually to a person with whom you have a difficult relationship. What happens is that the love overflows—it shifts your feelings about these people you didn’t care for before.

This seems to be due to oxytocin, a hormone the brain releases when a person feels love. Oxytocin has a half-life estimated at 3 minutes, so you’re brain is still bathing in it when in metta practice you shift your attention toward a heretofore unloved person. The lingering warmth transforms your feelings, and in a memorable way that have an impact when you actually meet the person you’ve contemplated.

JoyBut how can this substitute for consumerism? Well, love feels really good. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California has described what he calls the Human Oxytocin-mediated Empathy (HOME) circuit in the brain. Oxytocin release starts a cascade of other chemicals flowing in the brain, including dopamine, a neurotransmitter thought responsible for feelings of desire. Then, if one gains the object of one’s desire, there is a release of internal opioids, which underlie feelings of pleasure according to University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge.

Consumerism is simply a way to get the dopamine-opioids cascade going in the brain. People see advertisement for a Rolex, a Jaguar or the latest consumer electronics and the feel desire. I gotta have it! That’s the dopamine. Then, they buy it, wear it, drive it or play with it, and they feel joy. Those are the internal opioids. What if we could get this system going simply by teaching people a few psychological practices?

The production of material goods like a Jaguar necessitates mining, manufacturing, and pollution. But psychological goods like metta can be reproduced at virtually no cost. All it requires is for people to share knowledge with each other.

Practicing metta now and then won’t be enough to change things much. The big payoff, I believe, will come when people learn to extend metta into a continuous practice of affection not just for people but for just about everything that is going on in your life.

This practice, mindfulness, is also derived from Buddhism, and has been extensively studied in laboratories. Brain imaging done in the lab of Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital has shown that an 8-week mindfulness program leads to structural changes in the brain. Physical changes like this are thought to reflect the improved performance that comes with practice.

Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention to whatever is going on in the present moment with an attitude of friendliness or loving-kindness. In addition to practicing metta toward difficult people, you can feel metta toward all sorts of challenges—including the sense of being deprived that stimulates so much consumerism. In fact, Virginia Commonwealth University psychologist Kirk Warren Brown has found a four-week mindfulness training program lessened financial desire—the wish to “keep up with the Joneses”—among students who successfully acquired the practice.

The great thing about mindfulness is that when you love what you already have, you feel less need to replace it. You consume less, but it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.

We all have basic physical needs for food, shelter and health care that will have to be provided through economic production at some cost to the environment. Since most, though not all, Americans have adequate food, shelter, and health care, there is little need for growth in material production in the United States except to the extent that our population grows. The more we can transition to fulfilling psychological desires through psychological means, the sooner we’ll have an economy that can be sustained within the limits to growth. We can hardly lose by loving each other more.

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Rick Heller is the co-founder of the Humanist Mindfulness Group, which meets at Harvard University and has created SeeingtheRoses.org, a web site that offers videos teaching contemplative practices as a way of dealing with climate change. This commentary is also available here at Rick’s blog.

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