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The solution to sadness isn't happiness. It's kindness.
Selfishness is counterproductive. So why are people selfish?
The New York Times is reporting today on new research showing that people who give to others, e.g., by volunteering in their local community, report lower levels of loneliness and stress. This is important because loneliness is an unseen pandemic in modern human life; a shocking 61% of Americans in 2019 say they experienced it (up from 54% in 2018). And, as the current Surgeon General is fond of saying, loneliness is as destructive to human health and life as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
This report is just the latest in a long line of research showing that kindness of various sorts is not just ethical but the key to personal happiness and fulfillment. The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you — is not just an ethical principle but good advice for living a happy life.
Consider: People who were given $100 and asked to spend it on someone else reported higher levels of happiness than people who were told to spend it for themselves. A similar experiment, where people were randomly assigned to a group that spent $5 per day on themselves over 5 days, or were given $5 to give to someone else, led to happiness that endured for the givers; the experimentally selfish people, in contrast, quickly lost any joy from the unexpected financial boon. There are numerous other studies with similar results (though it’s important to point out that studies like these are probably easy to get wrong).
The research on kindness and the Golden Rule is compelling. So why aren’t more people willing to give? Indeed, the most common solutions to loneliness and depression, even in social justice circles, is to focus on "self care." Self care makes a lot of sense for physical problems that require us to take the time and money we need to heal our bodies. But if it is our mind and spirit in need of healing, it’s not self care, but care for others, that is more likely to lead to real healing.
So why isn’t generosity a bigger part of the conversation on mental health and well-being?
I’ve thought about this question for about as long as I can remember thinking. And, for a long time, I believed this was a problem of individual human character. “Human beings are just so selfish!” But as I’ve written and spoken elsewhere, most recently on a podcast with social scientist Duncan Watts, this misunderstands the human condition. It is systems, and not individual characteristics, that drive human behavior.
So what about our system is driving people to selfishness over kindness? Here are three possible answers, along with tentative answers to how the system can be fixed.
Scale. The renowned anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the human brain has a social limit of 150 genuine relationships. Relationships — which require remembering names, histories, preferences, and interactions — are surprisingly demanding on our brain, and given our brain size, as compared to other primates, Dunbar suggested that human social groups could not naturally exceed 150, which became known as Dunbar’s Number.
While there has been some scientific controversy around Dunbar’s number, the basic intuition that human social groups have a size limit, whether due to brain capacity or some other attribute of our species, is probably a sound one. And the evolution of human civilization has far exceeded that limit. People are maintaining far too many “relationships” — including everyday interactions with random strangers — than we are able to manage. And if we don’t even have the capacity to have genuine relationships with the people around us, because there are simply too many of them, it’s hard to follow the Golden Rule. Human beings aren’t naturally inclined towards giving to strangers.
We are not going to move back to tribes of 150 people anytime soon, and rightfully so. (There’s much progress that can only be made from the incredible diversity of large human settlements.) But we have to find ways to live a small scale life in a large scale world. Probably the most important thing we can do is to collectively invest, including public funds, in institutions where people can have stable, long-term local communities. Imagine, for example, that our government invested in local community centers that provided free entertainment options, rather than subsidizing Big Oil and Big Ag.
What can we do to live a small scale life at the individual level? The best suggestion I have is for all of us to find a group of people — whether at a church or a hobby or a community center — and commit to spending regular time with them, in person and in real life. It’s an investment as important as saving in your bank account because it protects our mental health.
Distraction. People have moved away from in-person forms of entertainment towards online options. These digital addictions are not just destroying human productivity; they are likely contributing to the decline in human relationships. Our brains simply aren’t wired to resist the dopamine rush provided by Instagram or porn or the latest video game. Like junk food, this “junk culture” feels good in the short run, but is killing us in the long run. Because junk culture distracts us from making real and meaningful human relationships that are crucial to preserving our mental health.
We haven’t even solved the problem of junk food, of course. But we have more or less solved a similar problem: cigarettes. And we solved it via public investment and regulation, not individual persuasion.
We similarly should start investing in polices that marginalize and hinder social media consumption. There should be public service ads discouraging social media usage. There should be a norm that looking at one’s phone, in public, is as frowned upon as smoking a cigarette. There should be special taxes on social media companies. Because social media usage, especially in young people, is destructive to human health, connection, and kindness.
What can individuals do? Stay off your phone, and off social media, as much as you can. What we’ll find, when we’re living in the real world, is that we want to give to the people around us (and not to Amazon or Facebook).
Distrust. This is probably the biggest problem. And I might very well write an entire book on this subject. But a recent personal experience illustrates the problem. I have a close friend who tried to show kindness to some other folks she was in conflict with. I encouraged her to do so, and it came at high personal cost. But it was the right thing to do because it would help everyone in a tough situation heal. And my friend initially felt very good about her act of kindness.
But then something that happened that turned everything sour. People started whispering that she had admitted she was wrong, and that she needed to be held accountable. Her act of kindness was turned into a mark of shame.
“I’ve learned that it just doesn’t work sometimes to be the kinder person. People will use it against you.”
This seems to be a problem, more broadly, in our society. Any sign of compassion is seen as a sign of weakness — and one that can be used against you. More generally, kindness only works when there’s a sense of reciprocity, i.e., when people believe their kindness will be returned.
I have a lot to say about how we solve the problem of distrust. But I’ll offer two insights for now.
The first is that trust depends on openness and transparency. There’s far too much that happens in the dark — the ag gag laws that criminalize taking photographs in factory farms are one such example — and, especially for those people and organizations in power, we need a commitment to radical transparency.
The second solution comes from a fundamental reorganization of social policy away from maximizing economic output, and towards protecting life and well-being. David Cameron, the former conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, put it thusly: we should be focusing on gross well being and not gross domestic (economic) product. Part of the reason people don’t trust our society is because they know, well, that our society is not focused on making their lives better. If we had a system that was at least nominally directed towards improving well-being, then people would be more willing to forgive its mistakes.
And the most powerful indicator of whether a system is truly oriented towards the well-being of everyone, and not financial returns for the most powerful, is how it treats those who have the least power. I call this the moral stress test, and until we pass it, we won’t solve the problem of trust — or facilitate widespread human kindness.
Again, what’s the individual implication? Do your best to assume good faith in others, even when you might be inclined to distrust. It’s not easy, especially in a world where things are so uncertain and tense. And there will be times, as with my friend who felt her kindness was betrayed, when it doesn’t work out so well. But if we want change, it doesn’t come easy.
So, by all means, recognize that it’s hard to trust people.
Then do it anyways.