There is hope: a powerful call for more care

By Marieke Van Vugt

Recently there was a meeting between the Dalai Lama and scientists, religious leaders and artists. The theme of this was "Power and Care." Over the course of 2.5 days leading figures discussed their work with the Dalai Lama. What was particularly inspiring was that there was a palpable sense in the room that real change towards a more caring society is possible if we all make our small contribution.

In contrast to what you might think, power is not always bad. Alexandra Freund told us that while powerful people run the risk of feeling entitled and not responsible for their actions, at the same time powerful people feel more authentic and report higher subjective well-being. What is needed are people like Gandhi who use their power to deeply care for people and society. In this way, power suffused by care can make people happy in a very deep way, because they actually are able to make a big difference in the lives of others. For this to happen, of course people need to be trained well in compassion and empathy before they become powerful. Tania Singer showed that compassion and care can be trained with daily mental practices. These practices result in discernible changes in altruistic and punishing behavior (more altruistic, less punishing). (for more about this see: One important side note: these practices of loving kindness and compassion appear not to work for everyone. Prof. Richard Schwartz from Harvard suggested that one reason for that that may be due to histories of personal trauma, which may have distorted people's attitude towards both power and care. 

Throughout the whole meeting, the Dalai Lama emphasized the importance of so-called analytical meditation for effecting these changes in our minds that can make us more caring humans, and a more caring society. When you reflect again and again on how hurting others really makes us unhappy, and helping others is an incredibly effective way to make us happy, this can really change our behavior. In fact, you can even feel in your body how being angry is not very helpful. On the other hand, when you have a caring attitude, you are more calm and relaxed, and need less tranquillizers. So compassion is not necessarily cultivated by some warm fuzzy feeling for others, but also through simple reason. Going through these reasons again and again (one time is not enough!) we can really change our mental habits. For me as a scientist it was interesting to learn that through the practice of science to we contemplate about the nature of the world. Although sadly, we rarely bring the consequences of our scientific work into the way we live.<br><br>

The rational scientific perspective was complemented by powerful talks by leaders from several religious traditions. An interesting remark by the Dalai Lama was that he learnt from some Muslim leaders that the real meaning of Jihad is overcoming and battling your own destructive emotions. If only more people were to realize that! Pauline Tangiora is a Maori elder who gave a very moving speech in which she urged us to take care of mother earth. In fact, it was almost as if Mother Earth was speaking herself as she reminded us of all of the people who are suffering because of corporate greed. Rabbi Soetendorp suggested that the people who really care about care and spirituality need to speak up and be more powerful. In fact, there was a strong call from both Alaa Murabit (voice of the women of Libya and Theo Sowa to pay attention to the feminine side of power. So many women make really a difference at a grassroots level, but our society only gives money and prestige to people who focus on money and prestige. I see this around me in the academic world as well, and sometimes that almost makes me want to quit. But if enough people operate from the power of care, slowly, slowly maybe this can change. At least it was inspiring to see more than 2000 people at this meeting all making the personal aspiration to promote care in our society. Together we can make both ourselves happier and at the same time society a happier place. 

You can check out the recordings of the conference here