The Dalai Lama was in town the other day. That's Ithaca, New York, a small town in the middle of nowhere. His Holiness comes to Ithaca—it’s his second visit— because we have a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on one of the main streets downtown. It's an unassuming old house painted red and orange and decorated with a string of colorful prayer flags. The citizens of Ithaca are also used to seeing monks in saffron robes walking around downtown. You notice these guys not so much because of the striking robes and shaved heads, but by their smiling, laughing faces. And the Dalai Lama seems to be the happiest monk of all. His lecture at Cornell University last week started with a big laugh and was all about happiness. What's with these guys? Why are they so happy? The answer is, of course, that the monks have worked very hard to become happy, peaceful people. They spend hours a day meditating and quieting the mind, and they also work hard to maintain a philosophy of compassion for all human beings. Question is, why does it take so much work to become a compassionate, peaceful, happy person? Why aren't we all wearing saffron robes and laughing? Evolutionary biologists would answer that the monks have to work hard because they are up against the darker side of human nature. Humans, like all animals, are essentially selfish beings. Natural selection favors those who behave in ways that pass on genes, and that means we are usually out for ourselves. Sure, we often cooperate with others, but only when it suits some personal gain. It isn’t pretty, but it's part of who we are. On the other hand, His Holiness maintains that we are also naturally armed with compassion for others, and this is true. Humans express both sympathy and empathy, emotions that often move us to help those in need, even strangers. But it's also human nature to forget very quickly some disaster, grief or bad experience felt by someone else, and that's why we need to be reminded by someone who is a master at compassion. Finding mental peace is also so difficult for humans because our minds evolved to be ever on alert, ready to puzzle-solve, always thinking. It goes against human nature to turn that mental machine off, although we'd all like to sometimes. And that's why people are drawn to the Dalai Lama and why it is such a gift that monks roam my town. They are reminders that even if we have certain natural tendencies, it doesn’t mean we have to respond only to those tendencies. We could, in fact, have a better human nature if we just worked at it.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link (opens in new tab)) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link (opens in new tab)).