07/11/2012 03:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

The Politics of Struggle vs. Snuggle

Harvard Professor Martin Nowak, writing in the current issue of Scientific American suggests that life is not just a struggle for survival, it is also a snuggle for survival. In fact evolution has always depended on more snuggle than bare-toothed struggle and aggression. So can our politicians please remember this and stop acting as if cooperating with each other will give them the political version of STDs?

We need an antidote to this prolonged national hissy fit.

Politicians are doing so much whining it is clear they are not getting their snuggles. They are caught in a very lonely game of hyper-serious competitiveness where the ground of contention gets narrowed in ways that leave them fighting over thin wedges of the truth. What happens when you get inflamed ideological posturing with no commitment to collaborate? You create moral chasms such as the idea that contraception represents a murderous attitude to potential fetuses rather than an honorable way to prevent unwanted babies. Rather than creating space for solutions to emerge, everything becomes the basis for schism and rift.

We inhabit an environment where politicians think they can get more traction by defining the boundaries of exclusion rather than building bridges of inclusion. Compounding the problem of hissy fit politics is that ranting and raving have become the daily diet of media entertainment. Polarized politics requires fierce competition to define differences and the media makes sure that those who bark loudest get their voices amplified.

It is time to change the national mood. Here again science is on our side. Recent research suggests that an important context for collaboration relates more to mood enhancement than gaining crude advantage over others or piling up rewards. Snuggling feels good. Altruism feels good and it positively affects well-being and longevity. And the opposite is equally true permanent animosity ruins your health.

This doesn't mean that politicians only have a choice to get in bed with each other or smack each other down. We are ready for something more subtle and more evolved in our politicians. Democracy is indeed about both the contest of contrasting ideas and the collaborative energy needed to meet common challenges and forge a national consensus.

Simplistic polarization can only be a preliminary strategy to frame positions before the real work to collaborate begins. And real collaboration is decidedly a mood enhancer: it elicits respect, dedication to greater purpose and the quest for higher ground. We feel hope and inspiration when we set out to address daunting challenges together -- just as we feel paralysis in an atmosphere of contempt.

Researchers tell us that cooperation thrives when there is a foundational belief in reciprocity: if I give with good intent, I shall likely receive back accordingly. That is why The Golden Rule permeates every religion and spiritual tradition: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It seem political backbiters have forgotten this and so they wallow in the confusion of exaggerated competition.

So here is my prediction: The angriest ad most hostile competitors in the upcoming elections will lose -- they are simply not evolved enough to win the future. For the future belongs to the great collaborators and their thoughtful army of snugglers who seek a kinder and more sustainable America!