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Category: Zubin

Stimulating Happiness

Studies have shown that people that take meaningful action with the people around them became more satisfied with their lives. Meaningful action like playing a game of football or having a virtual party with friends directly correlates to a more enjoyable life.

Nearly 1,200 Germans explored this question in a recent study—and then Julia M. Rohrer and her colleagues followed up with them a year later to find out how happy they felt. The researchers found not all roads lead to happiness.

In surveys, study participants first identified how satisfied they were with their life on a scale of 0-10, and then wrote down their ideas for maintaining or boosting their life satisfaction in the future. After a year, they reported their life satisfaction again and answered some questions about how they had spent their time.

Analyzing the data, the researchers could distinguish between two different types of happiness strategies: social and individual. Some goals—like seeing friends and family more, joining a nonprofit, or helping people in need—put participants into contact with other people. The other type of goal includes staying healthy, finding a better job, or quitting smoking—things that don’t necessarily involve spending time with people.

Ultimately, people who wrote down at least one social strategy tended to follow through and spend more time socializing that year, and they (in turn) became more satisfied with their lives. They were the people who committed to teach their son to swim or be more understanding of others, to go on a trip with their partner or meet new people.

Meanwhile, people who focused on individual goals didn’t improve their life satisfaction over the year. In fact, the self-focused road to happiness was even less effective than having no plans for action at all, which was the case for about half the participants. Those people were either relatively content—writing “Everything is fine” or “I wouldn’t change much”—or they hoped for changes in external circumstances, like the country’s politicians. They actually fared better when compared to people who pursued individual strategies.

Kira Newman

There is a common belief that helping others makes us happier, written about in numerous papers and articles in the past few decades. Although this is partly true, Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, tells us that helping others makes us feel better when we are able to see the results of our actions. She reports that when people donate to a cause where they can easily envision the results of their efforts, they have a happier reaction to their donations. 

The human connections we have are not always long-lasting friendships but include the kind acts we do toward the people we care about. You may not know the person to whom you gave a few bucks, but you care about that person. A connection to that person or a specific story moves us past the hurdles of psychic numbing, in turn making us better and happier people.

The ability to at least understand how you are making a difference makes you happier because there is a social connection formed in the process. Our minds are built to favor helping others in our small groups and when we know who or what we are helping we feel a greater sense of happiness.


“Is Social Connection the Best Path to Happiness,” by Kira Newman, June 27, 2018.

“Helping others makes us happier— but it matters how we do it,” by Elizabeth Dunn, May 20, 2019.

“7 Ways to Maximize Misery” by CGP Grey, May 31, 2017.

Limitations of the Human Brain

Note: this blog post is written by Zubin.

Our cognition constrains our thoughts and understanding of the world, often subconsciously. The average person is severely handicapped by their inability to comprehend large figures. Psychologist Paul Slovic calls this struggle psychic numbing. His research into human compassion at the University of Oregon showed that in many cases numbers can’t convey the real cost of the situation.

Slovic uses refugees as his prime example of psychic numbing, with a reported number of around 79.5 million people displaced at the end of 2019 according to United Nations statistics. The number 79.5 million alone is hard to grasp, and each of the around 80 million people is a single person or family trying to shelter themselves from horrific destruction, war, and terror.

There are now 65.3 million people displaced from their homes worldwide [at the end of 2015], the United Nations reports. It’s an all-time high: likely the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers in human history.

Think about that number: 65.3 million. Can you even imagine it? Like, really imagine it. When we see one life, we can imagine their hopes and pain. But 65 million? You can’t. That’s just an abstraction. There’s a hard limit to human compassion, and it’s one of the most powerful psychological forces shaping human events.

Brian Resnick

Because of psychic numbing, many politicians and citizens do not understand the sheer struggle of refugees and are likely to ignore mass atrocities.

Slovic’s work has shown that the human mind is not very good at thinking about, and empathizing with, millions or billions of individuals.

That’s why it’s not surprising six out of 10 Americans support a travel ban that, in part, bars refugees from entering America. That many lawmakers aren’t horrified by the possibility of booting tens of millions from health insurance. That the world looked on as millions died in war and genocide in Darfur. That we haven’t really grappled as a nation with the opioid epidemic, which killed 33,000 in 2015.

It’s not surprising why political leaders often turn a blind eye toward refugees, or grow a callous heart when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.When numbers simply can’t convey the costs, there’s an infuriating paradox at play. Slovic calls it “psychic numbing.” As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

Brian Resnick


“A Psychologist Explains the Limits of Human Compassion,” by Brian Resnick, September 5, 2017.

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