Who Are We: Economic Man or Holistic Human?

By Florence Scialom

In economics, human beings are often viewed as caricatures, based on an exaggeration of certain identity traits: a desire for personal wealth and hedonistic luxury, a resistance to work and being motivated by personal gain alone. Yet in reality we are both more messy and more beautiful than this image of homo economicus allows.

Recently, I’ve been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. She explains in detail that in order to update economics for the 21st century, we need to move away from perceiving ourselves as ‘rational economic man,’ and acknowledge that we are in fact socially adaptable, holistic humans.

Rather than isolated and selfish, we are interdependent and reliant on each other and upon nature. Rather than being motivated by personal gain alone, we often get satisfaction from helping others and having a deeper sense of purpose.

Relying on others can be scary, as there is uncertainty involved. People can let you down, or act in ways you don’t expect. Yet people can also bring so much love, care and laughter to your life that you feel grateful to be alive.

Relying on nature can seem terrifying, with unpredictable conditions and limitations beyond our control. Yet nature also makes all life possible, and connecting with nature can bring a deep sense of joy and beauty to our lives.

Developing mental models to protect us from our vulnerability may give us the illusion of strength. Maybe we can even trick ourselves for a while. However, eventually reality catches up with us. If we ignore our interconnectedness we get record-breaking levels of loneliness and depression. If we ignore our reliance on nature, we take it for granted to such an extent that we get dangerous levels of climate change.

We are so scared of the truth that we ignore what is staring us in the face, as we have sadly seen with the widespread silence on the role climate change has played in exacerbating the recent crisis in Houston, Texas.

Remembering who we are

Our vulnerability and interconnectedness are part of who we are; it is vital to acknowledge that we need each other and this wonderful planet we live on. It is actually good for us as individuals to care for each other and for the planet. This is a truth so obvious, it should be self-evident. And yet we have somehow created economic systems based on a completely counter-intuitive story of who we are.

We have to make an effort to remember who we really are, and find ways to act upon this truth. Of course, truth is complex. It’s true that we are sometimes selfish and greedy as a species, but we are also sometimes caring and altruistic. It’s true that at times we don’t want to work and we only look out for ourselves, but we are also capable of joyfully putting our heart and soul into achieving our passions.

It seems to me that we’ve tried to make mathematical that which cannot be quantified: the complexity of the human character. We have tried to base the structures of our society on an oversimplified and flawed vision of who we are, and we’re all suffering as a result.

Surely our societal structures should be set up to support the best and not the worst in us?

Make Kindness Great Again

One way to challenge this is to start telling ourselves different stories about who we are. Practicing mindfulness helps me with this, as does supporting practical initiatives that are based upon a more positive understanding of human nature.

There are countless examples of these types of initiatives, that reveal the more generous and beautiful side of our nature. One example I came across in recent months is the Make Kindness Great Again campaign by Action for Happiness Netherlands. This initiative encourages people to commit random acts of kindness for strangers, and then invites those strangers to pay it forward.

Spending an afternoon in Rotterdam (pictured above) giving out free hugs, compliments and teddies to children warmed my heart, and it was nice to see the surprise on people’s faces when they realised someone was being kind to them for no particular reason; simply because it feels good to be kind. For me, these types of actions are a reminder that kindness is a core part of who we are.

There are plenty of other practical examples, large and small, which challenge the narrow view of humans as ‘rational economic man.’ It is important to take action, and ideally create societal structures, based on a kinder, fuller perception of who we are.

Share your comments

What inspires you to see a new story of who we are? Would you recommend any projects, books or people which motivate you to see the best in humanity? Thanks for reading! 🙂

Stay in touch

You can stay in touch via Twitter @Flo_Sci or via following the new Mindful Change Instagram account.

Read other posts on Mindful Change



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