What makes us happy

Some years back I read a book by two researchers in search of what makes people happy.  Beyond general curiosity, my motives were somewhat selfish: I wanted to find out what the secret to happiness so to apply it to myself and be happy.

Finding the “happy people”

I still remember the researchers approach.  It was different from what I expected and has stuck with me since then:  they did not come from a nerdy angle that started with lengthy definition for “happiness” along with complex parameters and complicated metrics as you may expect.  These two researchers went out to find “happy” people by hearsay and then interview them to identify commonalities or factors leading to their happiness – and the very secret to happiness I was after.

Looking back, the researchers used the power of crowd sourcing (long before it became a household buzzword) to find those happy people.  In this practical yet somewhat fuzzy approach, they asked broadly who knew people that were “happy”.  Then zeroed in on those reportedly happy individuals that several others pointed to.  It may not be the most “scientific” approach I ever heard but intuitively it made sense enough for me to accept it and read on.

Smiley face in a crowd
What happy people have in common

The researchers found and interviewed, asking if these people felt truly happy and to found out what exactly made them so happy.

The responses surprised me.  Most of them, as I recall, did not consider themselves “happier” than others in a particular way despite the many people around them believing otherwise.  Of these presumable happy people, most appeared modest and content with their lives.  Their happiness came from within and somehow ‘radiated’ out to others.

Overall, they were happy with what they had and not driven by the longing for things they did not have.  It seemed they were more resilient or less tempted in what is advertised and suggest making us more beautiful, happy, smart, sophisticated, loved, needed, sexy, admired, or whatever once we buy this or that.

Sales Guru

No problems in life?

It got even more interesting for me when the researchers got to the real ‘meat’ probing the million-dollar question:  where does this inner happiness come from?  Was there an event, experience, or cause?  Were these people luckier in life than others, did they win the lottery?  Did they not face the same obstacles that most of us encounter; did they not experience pain or feel despair as much?

The answer was a surprise, again, from what I had expected and consistent across responders.  What these reportedly happy people had in common were traumatic life experiences, some of the saddest I have ever heard.  They had suffered the most painful challenges a human can ever go through; heart-wrenching life stories full of grief with loss and pain on every level imaginable.  They had faced certain death, lost loved ones or their health, survived war, crime, assault or terrible disasters.  They had lost everyone and everything important to them, everything that they had considered the center of their life at that time.

Gratitude

What they also had in common was a deep gratitude for having overcome these major losses and crises.  They were grateful for what they had today starting with their own life.  Their happiness truly came from within.  They did not crave getting the newest gadget first or show off status symbols of sorts.  They were happy being with their friends and family, and going about a simple life they enjoyed every minute.  They found beauty again in a flower and took the time to sniff it when others rushed by.

As a learning from these ‘happy’ people for myself, their happiness resulted from enduring a deep and meaningful suffering, overcoming a life-changing trauma and then to truly appreciate that you survived or made it through in the end to live another day.

It even reminds of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, where to protagonist need to descend to Hell (suffering) and work its way up through Purgatory (transformation) to reach Paradise (happiness).

To this day, it serves me as a reminder to value and cherish what I have and can do, and not to become obsessed with what I do not have.

Looking into the abyss

Now we could leave it here to sit back, smile, and cozily reflecting on our lives feeling good for a little while.  But why not take it further and ask the ultimate question:  looking back when I die, what would I have done different, what would have made me happier?

hospital-bed_2072858b

Obviously, we do not want to wait to find an answer before it is too late.  So, let’s crowd-source again and learn from other people at the end of their lives looking back.  Thankfully, an Australian nurse recorded the regrets of the dying she worked with over a 12-year period.  (The Guardian, Top five regrets of the dying, February 1, 2013)

Here are their top five regrets:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Read the list again.  Take a minute and think about it.  – Do any of these regrets resonate with you?  What would be your greatest regret?

Now that you know what these soon-to-die people wished they had done differently in their lives, what will you do in the time you still have?

Synthesis

But how does this all come together?  What is the change within us that in the end made the ‘happy people’ happy?  I was still looking for answers, for a pattern and an explanation to this phenomenon.

Let’s take just one step back to look at the bigger picture and combine the path of hardship to happiness by the ‘happy people’ with the regrets of the dying.  Is there a general formula that we can apply to ourselves to be happy?

Attempting an explanation 

I don’t claim to have scientific evidence, nor did I mull through endless scientific literature, or study medicine or psychology; to me the answer I found appears quite apparent and not new either.  It is known as “post-traumatic growth” in the medical world and defined as “a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”

Transformation

A change takes place in individuals during post-traumatic growth that transforms mind, attitude, and behavior:

  • Priorities change – they are not afraid to do what makes them happy
  • Feeling close to others – they seek and value closeness with people that are important in their lives
  • Knowing oneself better – they are awareness of their own needs and limitations
  • Living with meaning and purpose – they enjoy each day to the fullest, carpe diem!
  • Better focus on goals and dreams – actively seeking to making changes

This transformation changed the ‘happy people’ consciously or unconsciously, and it is this behavior and mindset that others see or sense, which leads them to the conclusion they are happy.

Smiley row

How to be happy

Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could replicate this this transformation and become happy without having to go through the hardship and suffering these happy-after-tragedy people all had to go through?  – The good news is you can!

From what I learned from Jane McDonigal, a famous game designer, the favorable result of post-traumatic growth can build four specific individual changes:

  1. Physical resilience – to not give in to sedentary behavior, meaning to get up and active, physically move!
  2. Mental resilience – build up your willpower to persist in reaching for your goals
  3. Emotional resilience – provoke your positive emotions to offset negativity (ideally in a ratio of 3:1, no kidding!)
  4. Social resilience – draw strength from other people; as a practical approach, genuinely thank one person a day or touch another person for at least 6 seconds.

Everyone can benefit for this simply by choosing to do so.  It gets even better:  over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies confirm that applying these changes can prolong your life by up to 10 years!  Amazingly, not only are the ‘happy people’ obviously happy, they also live longer!

So if you are in search for your happiness, as I was, chose to make these personal choices and start your transformation to happiness today!

Holding smiley face

Advertisements

Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds

Group intelligence beats individual brilliance – and businesses are willing to pay for the crowd’s wisdom in the social sphere.  The MIT’s ‘genetic’ model allows combining social ‘genes’ to harness the collective intelligence of crowd wisdom successfully and sustainably, for example in scientific research or business/employee resource groups.

We use collective intelligence every day

Whenever we face a big decision, we turn to our friends, our family, or our confidants. We seek information, guidance, advice, confirmation, or an alternative perspective.  No matter if we make a life decision (partnership, job, picking a school, etc.), a purchasing decision (house, car, mobile phone) or a less monumental decisions (which movie to watch, which restaurant to go to), we make our decision more confidently and feeling better informed after reaching out to our personal network.

What we do is tapping into the collective intelligence, knowledge, or wisdom of a crowd that we know and trust: we are ‘crowd sourcing’ on a small scale.  We do this because we instinctively know that the focused collective intelligence is higher than the intelligence of individuals.

What is collective intelligence or the ‘wisdom of the crowd’?

Wikipedia, the iconic product of global collaboration and collective knowledge, brings it to the point:

“The wisdom of the crowd is the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question.  A large group’s aggregated answers to questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning has generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any of the individuals within the group.  An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individual judgment, and taking the average over a large number of responses will go some way toward canceling the effect of this noise.”

Scaling up to a ‘crowd

When we read a movie review and rating on Netflix or customer ratings of a product on Amazon, for example, we tap into a larger and anonymous crowd.  On the other end, Netflix and Amazon know how they get people like you and I to deliver them free content (reviews, ratings) that runs their business.

So, let’s take this to a level where it really gets interesting for you!  How can you get a crowd to do your work?  How do you build a framework in which strangers work on your business problems and deliver quality result for free.

Crowd
Crowd Wisdom

Genetics of Collective Intelligence

MIT professor Tom Malone dissects the mechanics of collective intelligence in his groundbreaking article (MIT Sloan Review, April 2010).  The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence researched to understand this matter better and identified a number of building blocks or ‘genes’ than need to come together to engage and tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ successfully and sustainably.

Since these ‘genomic combinations’ are not random at all, we can also combine genes to build a collective intelligence system.  Depending on what it is that you want to achieve, the genes can be combined to a model that suits your specific purpose.  This is ‘social genomics’ made easy, and you don’t need a biology major!  🙂

Interestingly, this social genomics can be used independently for social projects you have in mind but also in relation to Employee or Business Resource Groups (ERG/ERG).  – The common link lays in the organizational design that is similar to the generic BRG/ERG business model discussed previously.  Thus, collective intelligence systems need to address the same questions as a business model:

  • Strategy or the goal: what needs to be accomplished?
  • Staffing or the people: who does the work?  Are specific individuals doing the work or is there collaboration within a more or less anonymous crowd?
  • Structure and Processes or how to organize and conduct the work?  How is the product created, and how are decisions made?
  • Rewards or why do they do it?  What are the incentives, what is the measure for success?

Motivation is Key

It is crucial to get the motivation right, i.e. why people engage and continue to come back to contribute more to the cause or project.  It comes down to finding the basic drivers for human motivation.  This explains why people invest much of their time and resources to crowd sourcing.

The famous $1million Netflix Prize was a 5-year open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings.  The winner had to improve Netflix’s algorithm by 10%.  The million-dollar reward in 2006 gives a flavor of just how valuable the crowd’s wisdom is for a company!  In contrast to common belief, money is not always the driver.  If it was, how do you explain the popular virtual ‘farming’ on Facebook, for example, where players pay hard cash for virtual goods?

In the more clandestine intelligence community, recruiting individual operatives plays to four motivational drivers: Money, Ideology, Conscience, and Ego (easy to remember as ‘MICE’).
The drivers for attracting collective intelligence are a bit different, as Tom Malone found out.  Nonetheless, there are parallels: He calls the key motivators Money, Love, and Glory.

Real-World Examples

Everyone knows Wikipedia, arguably the best-known social collaboration and crowd-sourcing project thriving from an intellectual competition over Love and Glory, no monetary incentives involved for the authors.

How powerful Glory and Honor are we see also in areas away from the mainstream where you may not expect to find crowd-sourcing and gamification: in scientific research.  The following two impactful examples reflect successful implementations for large crowds collaborating and competing to solve scientific problems:

  • Seth Cooper’s AIDS research challenge  on the “FoldIt” online platform challenged players to find the best way of folding a specific protein.  We will not dive into the science behind it and its medical significance; here are the details for those who are interested to dig deeper: MedCrunch Interview with Seth Cooper at TEDMED 2012.  For our purpose, we establish that a relevant scientific problem in AIDS research, which remained unsolved within the scientific community for a decade, took the crowd 10 days to solve!
    You may find it surprising that there was has no monetary incentive involved whatsoever – yet FoldIt attracted over 60,000 players(!) from around the world.  The winner of the AIDS-related challenge was later recognized and honored at the 2012 TEDMED.  It was not a Nobel-prize laureate from an Ivy-League institution but a laboratory assistant from Britain – who, well, enjoys folding proteins and collaborating on the puzzle with think-alike from other countries.  This is the power of Love and Glory!
  • Another example is the ongoing “Predicting a Biological Response” on Kaggle.com, a geeky online platform for people who like developing descriptive models.  My friend and colleague David Thompson of Boehringer Ingelheim (a major yet privately held bio-pharmaceutical company) designed this scientific competition to compete for the best bio-response model for a given data set of scientific relevance.
    The challenge offers a $10,000 prize for the winning model and lesser amounts for the models coming in second and third.  The monetary award together with a time limit of three months helps to speed up the process and keep up the competitive pressure.  Last time I checked, 467 teams competed and have already submitted 4,300 entries with another month to go.  The quality of the model is summarized in a single number (‘log loss’), so competitors can compare their results directly and immediately, the same quantifier determines the winner.
    Note that the Kaggle participation is not driven by the monetary incentive primarily; otherwise, the number of participants should correspond directly with the amount of money offered for a particular challenge, which is not the case.  Thus, participants are in it more for the challenge and fun than for the cash.  (If you are a participant and disagree, please correct me if I am wrong!!)
    On the other hand, don’t underestimate the business value of the gamification of science either: another ongoing competition in Kaggle offers a serious $3million reward!

The bottom line

Social collaboration, crowd-sourcing, and collective intelligence all rely and depend on humans collaborating to make things happen.  What holds true in the real world seems to hold true also in the virtual world: the magic formula is all in the genes…