Optimizing happiness through everyday interactions.

There is an optimal ratio for interacting between others within personal and professional relationships. Coined by John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, for everyone one negative interaction between two people during a conflict, there must be five positive interactions to maintain the balance between stability and happiness. The magic 5:1 ratio has the power to predict whether a relationship will last with 94% accuracy. There are other ratios that we keep close track of too.

The consistent finding in equity theory research is that in most relationships, people keep close track of how much reward each person is reaping (their outcomes, such as pay and perks) in proportion to how much they are contributing (their inputs, such as hours worked and the skills or credentials they bring). They do this more in work relationships and less in intimate relationships, but even in marriages, people are not oblivious to these ratios, and because of the power of self serving biases, they often have a sense that they are doing more than their “fair share” of some or all tasks. When everyone perceives that all the proportions are equal, then everyone perceives that things are fair, and harmony is far more likely. When people believe that someone else’s ratio is too high, they are likely to feel resentful toward that person, whose rewards are disproportionate to their contributions. They may also feel resentment toward the boss, company, or system that allows such inequities to persist. People are not just being greedy. An early study testing equity theory found that when people were led to believe that they were being overpaid for a job, they worked harder in order to deserve the pay- to get their ratio back into line.

Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. [online] Penguin Books, p218. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/36556202 [Accessed 17/05/2023].

Why does there need to be 5 positive interactions for every negative? Our minds are plagued with the negativity bias as our ancestors found it much more useful to pay attention to the threats that challenged their survival.

Do we ever stop to think about the interactions that we have between the products that we use? After all, the average person spends around 7 hours a day having a relationship with tech and yet there is no magic ratio for this.

How many positive interactions do we have everyday when checking our notifications for the juicy red dot? Passively scrolling infinite reels? Watching the news for some novelty? Viewing our followers count? Checking our likes for validation? How do we measure this relative to each negative interaction at the end of the day? Maybe we can rely on our emotions, however they do lie. We could maybe monitor our dopamine levels but I don’t believe there is an app for that.

Physical interactions between people were designed to maximize the number of copies of our genes. Natural selection used the survival KPI and released dopamine and oxytocin whenever we interacted with others in a non-aggressive manner. The most repeated findings on happiness research point to cultivating healthy relationships.

When I began writing The Happiness Hypothesis, I believed that happiness came from within, as Buddha and the Stoic philosophers said thousands of years ago. You’ll never make the world conform to your wishes, so focus on changing yourself and your desires. But by the time I finished writing, I had changed my mind: Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself. Once you understand our dual nature, including our groupish overlay, you can see why happiness comes from between. We evolved to live in groups. Our minds were designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups, but also to help us unite with those in our group to win competitions across groups.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. [online] Pantheon, p244. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11324722-the-righteous-mind [Accessed 21 Oct. 2022].

Online interactions however, use the attention KPI to maximize the number of copies of engagement, also known as retention. Synthetic selection uses the attention KPI releasing superstimuli that overstimulates our brains with novelty and outrage followed by an increase in pain, low motivation, shallow work and increasing the gap between us and our future selves.

There is a limit to how many new notifications, followers, clickbait headlines, outrageous reels and novelty we are anchored towards yet there is no limit to how many times we can check. Therefore the magic ratio online should be higher with the inclusion of illusive design.

Impulsivity leading to more negative interactions such as no red dot, no new followers, no new likes, comparative filters and outrageous feeds, all tilt us towards the wrong side of the interaction scale prompting us to seek validation and engage more in the chase for invariably timed rewards, synthetic happiness and the avoidance of pain from feeling excluded and isolated by the algorithm.

Practicing awareness, being introspective and reminding ourselves of the origin of illusive design can help us mitigate the negative interactions online that we are unconsciously unaware of. Asking ourselves questions such as, “Does scrolling make me feel fulfilled?”, “How does consuming this make me feel?”, “Is this red dot making me impulsive?”, “Am I avoiding the hard things?” can help put us back on track to sustaining happiness and on the path to realizing our legend.

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