Cooperation: an Answer to the Great Challenges of Our Time

By Matthieu Ricard on June 18, 2019

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Choosing between cooperation and selfishness

Cooperation is the creative force of evolution. Humans need cooperation in order to build increasingly complex levels of organization. It is also at the heart of humankind's unprecedented achievement; it allows society to implement things a single person could not.

From an egotistical point of view, acting as a “stowaway” - achieving one's goals by relying on others' efforts while contributing the bare minimum - may seem the most alluring strategy. Yet many studies show that it is better, for oneself as well for others, to trust one another and cooperate. In addition, there is an inherent satisfaction in working together to achieve a common goal.

The benefits of cooperation

In smaller communities and villages, the more people cooperate, the more prosperous they become, and the more likely their children are to survive. This is why, over time, our genetic heritage has steered us towards cooperation.

In a highly competitive society, individuals are wary of each other, concerned about their safety, and constantly seeking to promote their own interests and social rank. Conversely, in a cooperative society, people trust each other and are willing to devote time and resources to others, thus sustaining harmonious relationships through the virtuous cycle of solidarity and reciprocity.

Conditions that enable cooperation

Martin Nowak, an evolution specialist at Harvard University, describes five factors conducive to cooperation. The first is the regular repetition of reciprocal services. The second is the importance of reputation within a community, as those who cooperate willingly are appreciated by all. The third is the social networks structure, which may facilitate cooperation in communities. The fourth is the influence of family ties, which encourages related individuals to cooperate more. Finally, the fifth factor pertains to the success of cooperation and its impact on natural selection, as mentioned previously.

Over generations, people have woven a web of reciprocity and cooperation in villages, cities, states, and now the world. With the connectivity of global networks, information and knowledge can spread across the planet in a few seconds. Any positive thought, productive innovation or solution can be shared and used worldwide.

Altruism is our future

In our day and age, we are faced with many challenges. We must reconcile economic needs with respect for the environment, consideration for one another, and with the pursuit of happiness. Problems cannot be solved by individualism alone, and altruism becomes necessary as a common thread that allows us to naturally connect the three time scales, short, medium and long term, by harmonizing their requirements.

Short-term requirements pertain to the economy and the investments we make. Medium term is concerned with the quality of life: why should we be rich if we are not fulfilled? And finally, long-term challenges emerge. We are now 7 billion people on Earth, which makes us the key players in what will become of future generations and, even more so, the biosphere.

The only concept that combines those three levels is altruism. Being more thoughtful of others leads us to a solidarity economy, which serves society rather than the other way around. This allows us to alleviate social injustices and inequalities, as well as to preserve ecological functions.

Altruism and cooperation play a crucial role in most aspects of our lives and enable us to face the crises we encounter. Now more than ever, we need to cooperate on a global scale.

You too can take part by joining the #AltruismInAction movement led by Karuna-Shechen, the non-profit organization I founded in 2000, that has been working for 20 years to build a fairer world, promoting compassion and acting through education and empowerment projects in India, Nepal and Tibet. Social justice is inconceivable without solidarity between people. We deeply believe in the possibility of a better life, in which altruism and cooperation, not selfishness and conflict, prevail.

Help us build a fairer and more altruistic world, where everyone can freely aspire to be happy and independent.

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Note: To learn more about interdependence and altruism, we recommend Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World by Matthieu Ricard.