Dr Graham Music explains how our material world makes us selfish

Dr Graham Music

Dr Graham Music - Credit: Archant

Leading a good life and having The Good Life are intrinsically linked, according to Tavistock psychotherapist Dr Graham Music.

His book The Good Life: Wellbeing and the new science of altruism, selfishness and immorality (Routledge – available from Amazon) argues that being materialistic makes us more selfish, while living altruistic lives with close friend and family bonds makes us feel happy and fulfilled.

Dr Music’s book draws on the latest psychological research and brain science alongside decades of his own clinical work with traumatised children and adolescents.

“The title comes from Greek philosophy and the idea of two different kinds of happiness, one of wellbeing and feeling good about ourselves, the other hedonistic – being interested in objects and status,” he says.

“With the first kind, I make the link between feeling good and being more open, generous, kinder and more trusting.

“It’s an empathetically-induced form of altruism, if you feel a Greek sense of happiness, you are much more likely to automatically want to help when we see people in trouble.”


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Dr Music became interested through his work with severely abused and neglected youngsters.

“Your heart wants to go out to them because they have had such a horrible life, but they often don’t seem likable or do things that are nice.

“As they begin to look outwards rather than inwards, to feel happier and to be kinder to themselves, I see them become nicer, more open, and interesting.”

Dr Music argues humans who feel stressed, anxious and fearful click into survival mode where empathy, trust and curiosity are low priorities.

“Therapy done well makes people less selfish, as they become more at ease with themselves, less self-absorbed, more intuitive.”

Although Dr Music’s patients are at the extreme end of the spectrum, he cites several psychological experiments that prove his point more generally.

In one, priests on their way to give a talk about the Good Samaritan are accosted by someone needing help.

The priests told they have three minutes to get there don’t offer help, while the ones who believe they have plenty of time assisted the stranger.

“We are more generous and altruistic when we are feeling good about ourselves, while the capacity for empathy in stressed or materialistic consumer environments is turned off.”

In modern life we are bombarded with messages around status, material goods and fame, leading us to pursue extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivations.

“It’s the difference between superficial concerns about what you look like as opposed to caring about relationships with family, friends, and quality of life.

“There’s a big link between extrinsic motivations and mental health problems. The kids I work with are terribly insecure, more materialistic and more likely to be suckered into buying things they don’t need. Research suggests that people who have a more hedonistic definition of happiness have higher levels of inflammation and lower levels of immune system function.”

The most obviously hedonistic pursuit of excitement is the use of recreational drugs, which Dr Music says work on dopamine, the same system that responds to the brief “high” of buying something new.

“Drugs tend to compensate for not feeling good. They are not really satisfying and draw us into wanting more and more.

“Doing things for reward rather than for intrinsic motivation is a surer path to fulfilment.

“Would you be happier if you had a little bit of extra money at work or if you enjoyed your job more?”


One experiment on 18-month-olds showed that reward-based parenting doesn’t work, says Dr Music, who lives in Tufnell Park.

It involved an adult dropping something and the toddler picking it up.

“The toddlers given a reward for it didn’t do it next time, whereas those who weren’t rewarded would help time and again.”

If their motivation is purely the pleasure of helping, Dr Music believes children are inherently altruistic until taught otherwise.

“We have been sold a pup with this neo-liberal idea that there is no such thing as society and we are all individualistic and inherently selfish.

“The more we look at evolutionary research you see we are cooperative, generous and trusting when we are feeling safe enough, which is completely different to many other species.

“We are also primed to be selfish and individualistic as the environment gets unsafe, but ultimately group societies who are more cooperative are more likely to survive.”