It’s a fair question to ask why I’d read Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself given the mixed review of the authors’ prior work, Compassionomics. The short answer is that someone in a position to be helpful suggested it. The longer answer is that, despite Compassionomics’ limitations, there were still good points being made. Unsurprisingly, the “Wonder Drug” title is hyperbole. It’s also no surprise that this work is an extension of Compassionomics in that they’re proposing you actually do something about the compassion you’re feeling.
Live to Give
Though I’d argue that altruism is a level of compassion that involves personal cost or risk, many don’t draw that distinction. The concept of living to give – or live to give – is that you’ll be the happiest if you worry about other people more and yourself less. It’s no surprise that the Dalai Lama would agree. (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.) Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson concur in Altered Traits, basing their perspective on neurologically verifiable details about firing patterns. Neurological and psychological research is practically paved with studies verifying that the more concerned we are with others, the happier we’ll be.
The authors cite Adam Grant’s Give and Take. On Grant’s suggestion, I read SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist?, which further the argument for concern for others. Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation even provides computer models for how cooperation might have evolved – and what strategies are best.
Clearly, there’s no question about what the best approach is. However, the important question is how to make the transition. Even the Dalai Lama and Paul Eckman pondered whether we’re fundamentally compassionate or selfish people. (See Destructive Emotions.) They wrestled with the challenge of flipping the switch from selfish to serving. They didn’t reach an answer. Of course, the Dalai Lama could point to Buddhist monks, who meditate on compassion (loving kindness), but then one could argue that they were already on the side of compassion.
While the authors leave the question largely unanswered, I believe that before we can have compassion for others, our needs need to be satiated. We need to believe that we have enough and that we are enough. (See Brene Brown’s work in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) and Daring Greatly for more about enough.)
Passion, Purpose, and Wisdom
Sometimes, we confuse the idea that we’re passionate about something for our purpose. Consider a professional athlete. They’re clearly passionate about their sport. However, eventually, they’ll have to give it up. Many athletes identify passion projects during their career or after their careers are over. Scholarships, sports equipment, and programming for underserved youth are just the tip of the iceberg. The difference between their passion for the game and their purpose is in how it serves others. Purpose is why we’re here. (See Start with Why for more.)
The problem is, whether you’re talking to college graduates at a commencement or whether you’re in your second decade of working, the purpose may not have revealed itself yet. Finding the thing that is your purpose isn’t easy or straightforward. As Extreme Productivity points out, life has twists and turns that are not predictable. Many people find that their purpose isn’t discovered until late in life. While they’re waiting, they’re trying out lots of causes to see one might be the one that moves them.
There are places where Wonder Drug overreaches. That is, the book makes bold claims that aren’t supported by research. For instance, “Seventy percent of your ability to give (emotion, time, money) is the result of nurturance.” The research doesn’t come close to supporting this assertion. In fact, the more consistent research supports that it’s a combination of disposition and resources. Those who believe they can spare some resources are substantially more likely to do so. Of course, we all know people who have plenty who are disinterested in helping others and giving back. However, that self-centered attitude is much rarer than it may first appear.
Another instance where there’s an overreach is in pain management. “Just to be clear: if you are compassionate, your brain is more resilient. It can block out the empathetic pain of witnessing the suffering of others to allow you to give meaningful help to people in need.” There are two overreaches placed side by side. First, a resilient brain isn’t necessarily more compassionate. Though there may be some correlation, that doesn’t mean causation. You’re resilient if you can weather the storms of life.
Second, there is nothing that says you can block out the pain of witnessing the suffering of others. “Blocking out” implies hiding it from your consciousness, which would be the opposite of empathy and – because empathy is required before compassion – compassion as well. Those people who are the most able to give are able to accept and process the emotions and pains of others and convert that into action – they are by no means blocking them out.
Wonder Drug weighs that purpose is in being something larger than yourself – I disagreed above. However, there is a barrier, a discouragement that can happen if you focus on the magnitude of the problem that your purpose puts in front of you. You can see the scope and scale of the literacy problem for grade school children and do nothing. However, that accomplishes nothing. Instead, you can, like Dolly Pardon, set up library and book programs that make the maximum impact possible with the resources that you can spare. No doubt that Dolly Pardon has more resources than the average person, but her example shows that no matter what you can do, you should do it.
No doubt that if your purpose is of large scale and importance, you’ll not be able to do it alone or in your lifetime. That’s why it’s important to find others who can share your purpose – and become passionate about ways to address it. Some projects may not be completed in your lifetime. It may be that what you start won’t see fruit in your life. The truth is that the results are nice but the real reason for doing it is the process – knowing that you’ll be making the world just a little bit better.
While compassion and living a life of philanthropy and service may be good for you, it’s not as easy as it may seem. If we abandon the “me” culture for the culture of “we,” we become interdependent upon one another, and that’s far harder in today’s world than being independent.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be givers. We should. We have to recognize that the path isn’t easy. It is saying that, in the end, there may be no Wonder Drug.