To create positive change, trust your instincts

At a time when fear and terror seems pervasive, individual and group instincts can triumph.

Sonya Likhtman
20 February 2015

Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the head by the Taliban for her blog on girls' right to education.

We are overwhelmed by information. A 24/7 news cycle and constant social media compete for our attention, while society demands that we explain our decisions logically, like a storyboard of causes and consequences.

In a bid to escape, we turn to yet more sources of information, such as self-help books and lifestyle advice columns. They tell us to meditate. To walk 10,000 steps each day.

Yet relying solely on guidance from external sources overshadows our internal decision making tools. According to life fulfilment guru Oprah: ‘‘Learning to trust your instincts, using your intuitive sense of what's best for you, is paramount for any lasting success. I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I've made mistakes is when I didn't listen.”

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argues that people are instinctively geared to be aggressive, with the ability to love only if there remains another group to direct anger at. This bleak interpretation of mankind leaves little room for the positive instincts of compassion which sit equally deep within the human soul.

What about the parental instinct which causes humans, along with hedgehogs and cheetahs (thought to have some of the strongest caring instincts in the animal kingdom) to care for their young? How about the instinct which drives us to form deep connections with those around us, or to reach out to help those in need? Although the existence of destructive human impulses can't be denied, our positive instincts should be celebrated and cultivated.

Take the case of homelessness for instance. Instinct tells us that nobody should have to spend their days and nights on the street with little food and zero comfort. What’s more, ending homelessness makes logical sense: enabling people to live with dignity in a home will make them healthier, stronger and ultimately more able to contribute positively to society. If our individual instincts could be scaled up to the level of politics, homelessness would end.

How about the challenge of creating inspiring workplaces? Intuitively, we say that all people should feel respected, valued and integrated in the workplace. Equally, countless studies have shown that people are more productive and fulfilled when they are empowered and included in decision making.

My recent research in the Mondragon Cooperative in the Spanish Basque Country revealed that many worker-owners of the cooperative’s 281 firms are generally happy, motivated and proud at work. They attributed this specifically to Mondragon’s values and practices, such as ensuring that the highest salary within the cooperative is only six times greater than the lowest salary.

This incredible financial commitment is echoed in human relations: during a tour around the offices and factories, Mikel Lezamiz, Director of Corporate Dissemination, greeted every cleaner by name. His instinct informed his actions towards all colleagues in the workplace.

Divestment from the fossil fuel industry similarly fulfils instinctive as well as logical criteria. According to the organisation and Fossil Free, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground for us to avoid catastrophic warming beyond two degrees. Clearly, for the sake of ourselves, our planet and future generations, our fossil fuel frenzy has to end. All instincts point to the urgency of socio-economic transformation to renewable energy, a low carbon economy and more sustainable modes of consumption.

Why then, when the intuitive case for positive change is so strong, can it seem beyond reach?

Problems such as poverty, inequality and climate change are deep-rooted and complex. There are issues of distributed responsibility and dilemmas which have no unequivocally ‘right’ solutions. While personal instincts may be strong, knowing how to translate them into action is not always easy. Scaling them up to institutional and governmental decisions remains an even greater challenge.

Nonetheless, at a time when fear and terror may appear pervasive, the positive instincts of individuals and groups can triumph. Think of Malala Yousafzai, whose advocacy for female education has disseminated a ripple of hope to young girls across the world. Think of the nurses and coordinators working tirelessly to cure victims of Ebola. Think of Lassana Bathily, who risked his life to protect a group of hostages during the recent attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris.

When these people listened intimately to their instincts, they heard that compassion and creativity can triumph over hatred and injustice.

Humans are social beings, highly influenced by the behaviours and attitudes of others. What may begin as a few individuals following their instincts can progressively transform society’s perspectives and behaviours at large. The abolitionist, feminist and civil rights movements are clear examples of this social power, though their battles are not over yet.

So how can we know which instincts to trust, when we are overwhelmed by arguments and emotions?

We must strive to showcase our instincts of compassion and ingenuity, whilst putting those of selfishness and greed to rest. This demands courage and persistence. It necessitates time and dedication. As past and present moments of transformation have shown, it will be worthwhile in the long run.

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