The Greater Good
Let’s face it, we’re pretty self-focused. We think about our needs, desires, problems and worries all day long. Our brains are wired that way and it causes us to feel anxious and stressed on a regular basis. But could focusing on the bigger picture pull us out of that rut and even make the world a better place?
Tis the season when we’re all a little more kind, more patient, more generous. We become more interested in contributing to the greater good, even in a country as individualistic as the U.S. Working for the greater good implies serving the needs of something bigger and perhaps more worthy than just our own self-interest. Despite the fact that we frequently hear the term “greater good” in mindfulness, it was not directly a part of Buddha’s teachings and the term itself has multiple meanings punctuated by the time in history.
An antecedent, if you will, to the greater good is the common good, also known as the commonwealth or public benefit, which is still challenging for many to accept, but necessary before we can really understand the concept of the greater good. In philosophy, economics and political science, the common good is either what is shared and beneficial for most members of a community, or what is achieved by citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the field of politics and public service. The concept of the common good was debated by ancient Greek philosophers, so it’s certainly not a new theory, but because it has multiple meanings, it can be somewhat confusing.
Plato imagined an ideal state in which private goods and nuclear families would be relinquished for the sake of the greater good of a harmonious society. Aristotle, considered by some to be the father of the idea of a common good, defined it in terms of a communally shared happiness, whose key constituents were wisdom, virtue and pleasure.
As definitions and philosophies continued to change through history, a contrasting split in societies clarified the difference between those that believe in the common good and those that believe in the individual first. In individualistic nations like the United States, Australia and most Western countries, people behave according to self-interest and personal preferences and consider independence and self-sufficiency very important.
In collectivist nations, such as China, Japan and most other Asian countries, groups are of primary importance and individuals are secondary. In these cultures, individuals acknowledge the contributions of others to their existence. They may sacrifice self-interest to promote the interest of the collective. Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. Where unity and selflessness are valued traits in collectivist cultures, independence and personal identity are promoted in individualistic cultures.
These cultural differences are ubiquitous and can influence aspects of how society functions. How people learn, lead, and respond to societal challenges are greatly influenced by whether they are from a collectivist or individualist culture. Politics have unfortunately painted a negative connotation for Westerners of what the common good is by demonizing it as communism or socialism, but in fact, we all rely on common goods to survive. Clean air, clean water, roads, healthcare, education systems, public transportation, and perhaps now even access to the internet are all needs of all people to survive and to function in society.
I’m suggesting we set aside political rhetoric and focus on the fact that all people have universal needs and we fulfill many of those needs in a collective manner. The bridge that is constructed to connect workers to jobs but destroys a street of homes in the process is a common good. It meets the needs of many at the expense of some. The needs of the commuters outweigh the needs of the homeowners on that block.
It could be that the individualistic culture is creating the homelessness crisis in the U.S. The biggest stumbling block in eliminating homelessness has been that no one wants them to live in their neighborhoods. That is the needs of the individual outweighing the needs of the group. Individuals may feel that their own well-being carries greater weight than a societal problem like homelessness. People worry about their property values and quality of life. Ironically, homelessness is now creeping into many cities as well as suburbs, so they are living in our neighborhoods anyway, reducing property values and interfering in our quality of life.
That brings us back around to the greater good. The greater good not only recognizes that there is a common good, but that sometimes, we need to sacrifice something individually in order to make our community, society or even the planet a better place that we individually share. And I know the second I said the word sacrifice, mental breaks slammed. The definition of sacrifice is an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.
Most of us do that to some degree on a regular basis. If we’re saving up for a house, for example, how many things do we sacrifice along the way, from quality of living to luxury items to rest as we work multiple jobs? If we have children, we sacrifice a lot for almost two decades to ensure that they have what they need to flourish in life. If we have a loved one who is ill, how much do we sacrifice in the pursuit of their care?
We are just coming out of a period of spectacular examples of people serving the greater good. Front line workers individually sacrificed an incredible amount to ensure the survival of their communities. That’s the greater good, with a mindset that includes considering what the best action is under the circumstances for all concerned. Of serving a greater purpose than just our own self-interest. Can you imagine what could have happened had those individuals ignored serving the greater good?
The pandemic, if nothing else, has shown us that we are all connected and can have an impact on others, even across the globe. I think as we wrestle with the complex challenges we face today, it is more important than ever that we try to understand and accept that we possess shared interests and a common future. New research indicates that we are deeply concerned about the state of the collective goods that future generations will inherit and we’re downright alarmed by our political leaders’ lack of stewardship of these collective goods.
Even in individualistic cultures, we can’t continue to ignore poverty or homelessness or pollution because the results of our lack of collectively addressing these issues is now on a lot of our doorsteps. Another issue emerging as a crisis is our mental health. We stigmatized it and then ignored it for years and now that mass shootings are mainstream and our children are depressed at younger and younger ages, we see that it is indeed a collective problem and we can’t address it on an individual level.
We obviously can’t solve any of our major challenges on an individual level, but we can begin to adopt a mindset toward the greater good. This doesn’t necessarily require some sort of massive sacrifice, but instead can be enacted through our daily activities. We could consider our consumerism and its impact on the environment by simply being conscious about our actions. Do we need to drink water from a plastic disposable bottle or could we drink from a reusable bottle? Is our next Amazon order really needed the next day or could we wait a few days to receive fewer boxes? Could we buy less food instead of throwing so much out? I’m not sure there’s much if any real sacrifice in these small steps, but they could have an enormous impact communally.
Consider our behaviors. As we make decisions about how to treat others, could we consider the greater good? That simply requires a pause before we speak or take action. Does this person need to be heard and if so, can we listen? Can we make a small sacrifice of time to hear someone else’s needs? If we want something but know it may harm others, can we consider alternatives that meet our needs without causing harm to others?
Perhaps we could expand even further. Could we stop being apathetic about our politicians and start holding them accountable for their actions, like taking money from companies that are harming the environment or hurting specific groups in their communities? Could we all vote and recognize that governments are supposed to represent everyone, not just specific individuals or groups?
The concept of the greater good in mindfulness is really about being responsible for things that are greater than ourselves or that benefit others, and that represent standards of well-being for everyone and everything. That includes nature, animals, people, institutions, everything. This doesn’t mean we have to live in communes and give up all of our luxuries in life. It means we become focused on inclusion and on trying to make everyone’s lives better, not just our own. The focus is on living in a state of empathy and compassion so that we want to take action to support those with less, whether donating money, or our time and skills.
Serving the greater good doesn’t mean we can’t have wealth or fulfill our desires. It means we think more broadly. We strive for wealth or our desires considering how we can make life better for others as well. Maya Angelou said, “If it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, isn’t it also true a society is only as healthy as its sickest citizen and only as wealthy as its most deprived?”
I can’t help but consider this each time I drive by streets lined with tents on the sidewalks, with whole families living outside with no access to running water, facilities or electricity, which says what about our society? I think the same whenever there is a school shooting and wonder what is lacking in our culture that results in this. I wonder why the number of children entering the foster care system keeps rising or why there are so many starving children in a developed country. I question why someone died because they couldn’t afford the medicine that could have made them well. I think the answer may lie in staying focused only on our individual needs instead of the greater good. Ultimately, our individual needs will stop being met as the number of those suffering continues to swell until it overtakes society.
It's a mistake to think that our problems are too big for our individual actions to make any difference. The Chinese proverb, “The flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world,” is the chaos theory that small actions are capable of generating large changes. Has any small decision you’ve ever made in your past caused a major change in your future? Probably.
So perhaps we can carry our holiday season of giving and empathy past January 1st. What if we all kept being more kind, more patient and more generous every day, contributing to the greater good in all of the ways we can? What if we really consider our actions and the impact they have on others? We can still aim for what we want in life, but simply add the consideration of how we can bring others up with us. What if these small steps shifted our trajectory so that everyone’s needs are better met? Wouldn’t that ultimately serve all of us? If Maya Angelou’s right, then yes it could.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.