Why Your Life Depends on Helping Others


How do we shift the importance we place on helping others from an ideal to prerequisite for our own health, safety and welfare?

Today I'd like to explain how the business and academic communities have misperceived the personal importance - and utter necessity - of helping others. Please bear with me while I wade through a bit of background to lay out the general facts.

To paraphrase noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, when we finally get what we want, we want something else. His "Hierarchy of Needs" is one of the most often cited theories of human motivation. You can see my simplification of his framework at the left.

Maslow suggested that people start at the bottom and work upwards. To simplify a bit, he said that starving people don't have the luxury of worrying about whether they prefer French or Japanese food; they just want food. But once people have no problem obtaining food, they start to think about such refinements. They then start to consider higher level needs, such as their desire to be part of a supportive community.

Compared to most of the humans who ever lived, you will be really lucky to get halfway up this ladder. To get to the top is, well, almost too much for which to hope.

That's why it bothers me so much that the highest rung on this ladder is to help others reach their potential. I'd like to suggest that this is an outdated perception of this sort of action.

The bottom image reflects the current reality of the human condition. In an interconnected world, helping others reach their potential is not a nice-to-have ideal; it is a prerequisite for everything but the most basic human needs.

We won't ever be safe until all people are safe. Our needs for food and shelter won't ever be assured until all people have adequate food and shelter.

To put this in perspective, it's only been 100 years since the first commercial airline flight. Before then, we were separated by time and distance. Over roughly the same time period, we created mass-marketed automobiles and highway systems that increased the potential length of a "day trip" from a few dozen miles to over a thousand miles.

People, resources and even germs now routinely travel great distances in a matter of hours. In such a world, it is not enough to simply look out for your own needs. Before you can get what you want, you have to help others get what they need.

Although I believe in altruism, that's not my point today. In an interconnected world, it's not altruism that ought to motivate you to help others fulfill their potential; it is self-survival.
If other countries don't have the means and motivation to prevent widespread outbreaks of disease, we will all be subject to deadly pathogens.
If entire populations are bereft of hope or advancement, we will all be at the mercy of people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by disrupting the status quo.
If we teach our children to ignore the poverty, misery and despair just hours away from them, we will create a heartless generation only disguised as a civilized one.

Here's the problem: at present, helping others is perceived as a higher order need, further up Maslow's ladder than the desires for peak experiences and self-fulfillment. This is utter nonsense, but it is how many people still feel. This is the root problem underlying so much conflict and pain in our world.


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