Why bother doing anything meaningful? A psychologist’s perspective on Meaning conference.

A couple of weeks ago the annual Meaning conference took place in Brighton. If you’ve never heard of this brilliant event, as I hadn’t until recently, take a look at their website here. In their own words the event “connects and inspires a community of people who believe in better business” and has become “an annual gathering point for forward-thinking people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo”. Talks centred around ways to make business protect the planet and benefit the many, not just the few .

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Setting the stage

I was very wrong in thinking this would be a collection of employees with corporate social responsibility under their remit, ticking a box for their company. Almost everyone I spoke to had taken a day’s holiday to attend and paid the ticket fee themselves. Many had been in previous years and were really excited for the next event. One person wanted it to happen every month!

The question of why so many people gave up their time and money to attend is representative of the wider question of why we do anything to help anyone else. The answer may seem obvious – of course we should help others, it’s our moral responsibility. How could we not? As much as I agree with these answers, helping is actually very strange when you think about it in the context of our evolution.

Generosity and prosocial behaviours have puzzled psychologists trying to decipher the biology behind these actions and how it evolved. They don’t really fit with a “survival of the fittest” rule which traditionally favours selfishness. The two main explanations for being nice to people centre on those people either being genetically related to you or able to return the favour. However, in the globalised business world, these explanations can’t account for kindness to people you’ll never meet or, in the case of climate change, may not even be alive yet.

Luckily our basic ability to care for others, seen most strongly towards friends and family, can be extended to more distant others, although this requires more conscious effort. The importance of being social creatures has also cemented the ability of social interactions to activate our brain’s reward systems, more traditionally associated with rewards such as food or addictive drugs. The extent to which both of these things happen are highly dependent on the context, so what does Meaning do to maximise the appetite for prosocial business?

Having an impact

Prosocial actions, like making a donation to charity, have been shown to generate reward activity in the brain in line with the “warm glow” of giving. Importantly, it seems we do actually care about the outcome for others, rather than just giving to look like a good person. Evidence that this warm glow comes from the positive impact we’ll make on someone’s life suggests the bigger the impact, the better we’ll feel and so the more likely we are to give again. One workshop at Meaning by The Life You Can Save directly addressed this by getting participants to think about the causes and organisations they can give to, in order to achieve the biggest impact. More generally, businesses are well placed to have a significant impact and someone motivated to bring about positive change may achieve something bigger by influencing their organisation that going it alone.

Storytelling

As it does take conscious effort and attention to broaden our circles of caring to more distant others, we’re more likely to do so when information is delivered in a way we can easily digest. Telling stories is a great example of this. Just think how stories in books and films capture our hearts and emotions. At Meaning it was the speakers who told stories who really stood out to me. Jo Berry told the powerful story of extending empathy and understanding to the man who killed her father. Oliver Maxwell tied the story of his beekeeping company to descriptions of bees’ traits, giving amusing metaphors. Finally, Juliet Davenport and Hilary Jones told us about their companies, Good Energy and Lush Cosmetics respectively, through the stories from their development history to future plans. (Some talks available by clicking the speaker’s name.)

Nowhere was the importance of storytelling more obvious than in Clare Patey’s talk and the accompanying exhibition of the Empathy Museum. This innovative art project gives the opportunity to literally walk in someone’s shoes by physically wearing a pair, while you listen to the owner’s story. They tour and exhibit all over the world, details here.

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Clare Patey talking about the Empathy Museum

The social factor

Another highlight of the conference for me was lunch and not just because the food was incredible. The organisers made a big effort to emphasise that lunch is for “big talk not small talk” with cards on the tables giving interesting conversation prompts. Meeting people who think in a similar way to us is particularly rewarding based on our desire to fit in and get along with others. As attendees are self-described as not going along with the status quo, this aspect is likely to be particularly powerful. One person told me the event made him feel part of something greater which ties into the previous point about having a bigger impact when we work as a team. Meeting people who are doing inspiring things also gives us motivation and a support network to do something influential ourselves.

From the feedback and support they receive from loyal attendees, the Meaning organising team should be pretty aware already they are onto something great with this conference. By combining factors which tap into some of our basic psychological and neural mechanisms they are motivating people to team up and take on business as usual. With everything that’s happened this year, this is exactly what is needed to keep us optimistic!

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