ALTRUISM - Be Proactive - Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)

Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)



Be Proactive



The best way to convince a skeptic that you are trustworthy and generous is to be trustworthy and generous.1


FOCUS ONLY ON YOURSELF or help others. Two choices, a ton of motives.

Altruism is a tricky concept. In the moment you’re helping someone else, you’re likely not thinking “I’m being altruistic right now” but “I’d better keep that toddler from walking into the street before she gets hurt.” There are numerous reasons we may be compassionate or empathetic. Evidence shows that genetic makeup and learned behavior can also influence one’s propensity to be altruistic.2

But let’s be clear: Helping others means you also help yourself. There are physiological benefits for individuals when they’re compassionate. There are sustainable monetary benefits for organizations utilizing shared value. Countries measuring citizens based on happiness indicators get a deeper, quantitative view of their citizens than they would if they measured only GDP.

Helping just yourself means you benefit others primarily through transactional means. You buy things and help a local store or economy. You’re pleasant to others if it advances your needs. Are you evil? Not at all. Are you invested in others? Not at all. Does that affect your reputation? Yes, it does.

Psychologists use a term called prosocial behavior. This includes actions that benefit others outside of the intentions of people performing the actions. Altruism is prosocial but is also characterized by the selfless nature of behavior. Here’s how the Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute clarifies this distinction:

For the purpose of our study, we prefer a definition that relies on objective, measurable criteria. We characterize a behavior as altruistic when:

1. it is directed toward helping another;

2. it involves a high risk or sacrifice to the actor;

3. it is accomplished by no external reward;

4. it is voluntary.

Let’s also be clear that compassion takes risk, and not just that people may think you’re a softie. The real trial comes when you reflect on others’ needs and feel their pain. It’s hard to experience suffering. But we’re built to help others and we have the capacity to improve personal altruism through practice.

If you’re taking measure of your own life, it will benefit you to experiment with altruistic actions to see how it affects your health and well-being. On a global scale, leveraging our positive actions is a renewable resource that is scientifically proven to help both the giver and the receiver. In the case of flow, you have to participate in an activity to experience its benefits. Altruism and compassion function in similar ways. So why not get hooked on happiness?

Good Intentions

Forty percent of what makes us happy is based on our behavior. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a thought leader in the positive psychology movement, notes this finding in her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want:

What makes up this 40 percent? Besides our genes and the situations that we confront, there is one critical thing left: our behavior. Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.3

Lyubomirsky has worked with thousands of men and women, observing behaviors of happy people to determine what actions drive their outlooks. One of her better-known studies focuses on a series of “happiness interventions” she conducted with two sets of participants. Both groups of people were asked to commit acts of kindness throughout the week (donating blood, feeding a stranger’s parking meter) and keep “kindness reports” documenting their actions.

The first group was instructed to perform these acts throughout the week, while the second group did them all in one day. Both groups experienced a significant elevation in their happiness, although the people performing all their acts of kindness in one day had a larger increase. While this means the timing or regularity of committing these acts produced varied results, Lyubomirsky notes that “our study was the first to show that a strategy to increase kind behaviors is an effective way to elevate happiness.”4

It makes sense that we get used to an act of kindness and it may lose its luster. This involves the idea of habituating a behavior in positive psychology, but this can be easily overcome. Walk a different route to work to meet new people, or go to the Random Acts of Kindness website to get inspired with specific ideas you can emulate, like this one:


I was standing in line this morning at the gas station and there was a young mother with her child attempting to buy gas. She ran her debit card for five dollars and it was declined. She tried again to run her card for three dollars, but it was declined again. She left. I stood there heartbroken for this young lady. I didn’t know her or her situation, but it touched me. I went to the door, and she was putting her child in the car seat. I told her to get ten dollars in gas and I would take care of it. I am thankful and fortunate to be able to do this small deed.5

Little deeds add up. And the fact that you feel better after doing them doesn’t mean you were being selfish.

The Opportunity for Altruism

John Helliwell is professor emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and was coauthor of the United Nations’ first World Happiness Report. I had the opportunity to interview Helliwell about his research regarding happiness and social networks as well as some of his ideas on altruism.

He told me about recent research he’d been doing regarding happiness and inequality that revolved around gambling. As happiness is affected based on whether we’re alone, in a group of strangers, or with friends, Helliwell and his team set up experiments where people were gambling alone or with partners to gauge levels of happiness. There were a number of interesting results based on when people experienced happiness for other people and their winnings as compared to their own gambling successes.

The most powerful insight, however, from the study came when people were given an opportunity for altruism. During the gambling experiments, John placed a table in the corner of the room with a basket for donations. A small sign noted that the people conducting the study were collecting money for a charity that would buy antimalaria nets to save lives. The goal was to see if people would share their gambling winnings if given the opportunity. Here’s how Helliwell describes the results of this experiment:

There was no pressure with this request for a donation. We just provided the opportunity to give. We measured happiness at all stages of this experiment and found a really big boost came from people giving money away. They got way happier, in fact, than the people who didn’t give any money away. In fact, the happiness gain for people who were alone in the experiment was just as great as [it was] for people doing it in public view. It’s not about what you get, it’s about what you give. The biggest favor you can do for someone is give them the opportunity to do something generous.6

It’s amazing that people gave away some of their winnings whether or not they were being observed, but also that their happiness measurably increased with the act. As they were alone, one would assume giving money away was a selfless act without the opportunity for selfish gain. And they still got happier as a result.

The Happy Hero

Heroes make a career out of being generous. Altruism is part of the job description. We’ve all wanted to be heroes, and altruism gives us the gift of leveraging these hidden intentions.

Dana Klisanin is a psychologist specializing in the use of arts and media to promote altruism and compassion. She contributes regularly to the Digital Altruism blog she maintains for Psychology Today. In her article “The Cyber-Bully vs. the Cyber-Hero,” she outlines the importance of giving children positive role models in contrast to the cyberbullies that have received so much press. That’s why she’s created an award-winning interactive game called the Cyberhero League. As Klisanin describes, the game helps children counter cyberbullying by providing them a digital and real-world format to engage in positive, altruistic behavior. I interviewed Dana to better understand how kids could use technology for empowerment:

I’ve read from a few of your interviews that you’re concerned kids are suffering from a lack of empowerment in the modern world. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Kids today are saturated with media. They have access to more information than ever before and through it they are learning about complex global challenges, especially human-caused climate change and social inequality. Unfortunately, they have limited power to affect the world. I am concerned that this lack of empowerment may lead to feelings of helplessness, apathy, and depression that may continue into adulthood.

Can you define cyber-altruism?

Digital altruism, or cyber-altruism, is altruism mediated by the Internet or mobile technologies. It requires the willingness to help another, access to a computer or smartphone, and a bit of our time, depending upon what the action involves. For example, clicking a link to donate food, water, or medicine doesn’t take as much time as playing a computer game like Foldit, in which you contribute to scientific research by helping scientists learn more about folding proteins.

How can kids/people experience the benefits of altruism without being face-to-face in real life with someone else?

We don’t need to be face-to-face with people in the real world to experience benefits—we can Skype with a friend overseas and enjoy it. We can play a massive multiplayer online game with a stranger in another country and find it enjoyable. Likewise, when we engage in digital altruism—when we take an online action that benefits someone else—we benefit as well. Altruistic action creates a ripple effect—goodness online impacts real people in the real world just as much as hateful actions do. As a society we’ve focused a lot of our energy on cyberbullying, for example, without teaching our children that there are alternate positive behaviors.

Do you see the Cyberhero League increasing compassion as well as altruism? Are they different?

Yes, the Cyberhero League is designed to promote a number of character strengths and virtues, including compassion. The cyberhero is a new incarnation of the hero archetype arising from the fusion of moral action and interactive technologies. The Cyberhero League is designed to promote this new archetype. To support our goal of increasing character strengths and virtues we have partnered with VIA Institute on Character, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing both the science and the practice of character.

What’s the dream for the game?

The Cyberhero League is designed to support collaborative heroism. My dream is that the Cyberhero League will become a powerful force for tackling global challenges through extending the heroic journey across cyberspace. As a meta-level game it is a venue through which people of all ages can use interactive technologies act to act on behalf of other people, animals, and the environment. I dream that one day there will be a “cyberhero feature” in all interactive media—that the Cyberhero League icon will be integrated into interactive media and become as ubiquitous as those of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest—facilitating a worldwide renaissance of human values and promoting the emergence of planetary consciousness.7

It’s not enough to encourage kids to act heroically. We need to provide them models that show them how to do it. And without methodologies like the Cyberhero League, the benefits of altruism can’t be introduced into the digital arena where kids can see its value to practice in the real world.

Compassion for Couples

Giving kids an opportunity to be heroic is a huge gift. A gaming environment gives them permission to be compassionate and see how others will react. For adults, it’s also beneficial to empathize with others as a way to increase compassion. In a sense, we can gamify our experiences by pretending we’re someone else to see how they experience life. A good example of this idea comes in Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages methodology. Chapman’s idea is that people have five primary ways they feel most loved. If we know our partner’s “language,” we have a much better chance of being compassionate and communicating well. The languages include:

· Words of affirmation

· Acts of service

· Receiving gifts

· Quality time

· Physical touch

It’s amazing how vividly you get to experience your character when involved in a deep relationship. Even when trying to be compassionate, missing signals from a loved one means you’ll likely end up frustrated in many conversations. In my case, my wife and I learned about the Love Languages concept and it’s helped us a great deal. I tend to be a “quality time” type, where Stacy is big on “acts of service.” So when I was about to whine about watching a movie together a number of years ago, I decided to clean the kitchen instead. Then I vacuumed without being held at gunpoint. I didn’t announce I was doing these things, but wanted to see if my acts would help our relationship. Guess what—in the moment, it sucked. It’s housework. Nobody likes doing it. And then, of course, it hit me:

It’s housework. Nobody likes doing it. Including Stacy.

I had always helped around the house before, but empathizing with my wife while doing the chores made me realize that I was being a big schmuck by asking her to spend quality time with me if it meant there was still housework to do afterward and I wasn’t doing my part.

Curiosity can lead to compassion. Empathizing with someone else’s interests is a great way to engage in altruistic behavior without it seeming like a chore.

Compassion Is Contagious

Research in 2008 from a study involving over 4,700 people who were followed over twenty years found that people who are happy increase the chances that someone they know will also become happy. Even more remarkable is the discovery that happiness can span a second degree of separation, increasing the mood of the second person’s husband, wife, or close connection.8 The study9 was conducted by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis and was based on detailed records originally collected for the Framingham Heart Study, conducted over twenty years, that studied a number of health issues, including smoking and obesity.

The study also documents how the influence of a social network could impact policy change as well as health improvements. In the article, for instance, Fowler notes that “whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a five thousand dollar raise” with regard to increased well-being for participants, positing a focus on happiness would be a better gauge of national health than the GDP.10

In terms of virtual currency, this flow of goodwill may constitute a new part of the happiness economy that’s already been created with metrics like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. Where people’s upbeat moods can increase well-being two degrees away, social networks could literally be paying their appreciation for people’s actions.

“Happiness is contagious.” Nataly Kogan is the chief happiness officer and cofounder of Happier, a company whose app encourages people to take photographs of things that inspire them to share with friends. I interviewed her and asked her how acts of happiness can inspire compassion.

It’s pretty simple. Happiness comes from taking note of small positive things and sharing them. It’s about things like smiling more, or saying hi to strangers. When I first started doing this stuff, I thought it would be a farce or have to be complicated. It turned out to be the opposite. Once I started keeping a gratitude journal and studying the science of happiness, I learned that people who are more positive are healthier and less depressed. People tend to chase the wrong things and end up missing what could already bring fulfillment in their lives.11

The Currency of Kindness

It’s going to be more difficult to avoid being compassionate in our connected future. People may record you walking by a homeless person without a second glance. On the highway, cars connected with M2M (machine-to-machine) technology may register when you cut someone off. Actions that have been ignored in the past will now be recorded. While the threat of accountability-based influence may not be the best incentive to inspire altruism, it’s a start. And once you begin experiencing the happiness associated with compassion, you won’t want to stop.