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Happiness, Giving, and Creativity: 3 Insights from Hidden Brain

By Shlomo Maital

I am a big fan of a podcast, called Hidden Brain, and its founder Shankar Vedante, a Harvard psychologist. This week’s podcast is especially fascinating. It is about happiness, creativity and diversity. Here are three insights that I believe we can all learn from and apply in our lives.

  1. “materialize”.

   “Emily Balcetis, a psychology professor at New York University, knows that there’s a deep truth to these sayings. As she shows in her book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World, our visual system and our behavior are linked. We can use our sight, she says, to help us make better decisions and reach our goals.”

     To think concretely about the longer term, try to materialize it – make it visual, clear, detailed, pictorial. Balcetis tells this story about Michael Phelps, and the 2008 Olympics. Phelps was competing in a 200 m. event, that would break records for gold medals. At the start his goggles filled with water. He could not see. And you do need to see, to know when to do the somersault-turn. But Phelps had ‘visualized’ and ‘materialized’. He went over this eventuality in his mind much earlier, and figured out what to do, and pictured himself doing it – count strokes. He knew exactly how many strokes would get him to the end of the pool, where he had to turn around. He counted…and turned…and won.   Balcetis shows Gen Y people photos of themselves, artificially aged, to help them think materially about saving and retirement.

   Emily Balcetis, a psychology professor at New York University, knows that there’s a deep truth to these sayings. As she shows in her book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World, our visual system and our behavior are linked. We can use our sight, she says, to help us make better decisions and reach our goals.


  1. Help others. “Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn studies happiness. She says at the heart of her research is a sad idea. “Whatever we have, we tend to get used to it. So no matter how awesome our lives might be, or what wonderful things come into our lives, we tend to get used to them over time, and the pleasure that they provide gradually diminishes.”

   Dunn shows one route to happiness: Give to others, rather than to yourself. But, as Balcetis explained, “materialize”. Giving to a website won’t do it. But later in the podcaste, Vedante explains how. He cites a wonderful Canadian idea — five people can come together and sponsor a Syrian immigrant.

   “A Group of Five (G5) is five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee living abroad to come to Canada. G5s may only sponsor applicants who are recognized as refugees by either the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or a foreign state”

The G5 are responsible for the immigrant family for a full year. Not just financially – but, meeting them at the airport, bringing them to their new home, and making many arrangements for them. Hidden Brain interviews someone in Vancouver who did this —   and it brought enormous happiness.

   Contrast Canada’s G5 idea with the Trump Administration’s xenophobic policies toward hapless immigrants, including children.

Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, 2013.


  1. Diversity and creativity. Vedfante’s Harvard colleague, economist Richard Freeman, studied whether teams of scientists that are culturally diverse were more creative than those that were culturally homogenous, uniform. He measured this through citations. The answer is: Absolutely yes. It’s not surprising.   We’ve always known that teams that have divergent thinking (many many ideas, from many perspectives) are more creative than convergent ideas from same-culture people.

Freeman, R. B., & Huang, W. (2014). Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature News513(7518), 305.

   I believe that creativity brings happiness. So materialize, visualize, give to others materially and in a very personal manner, and welcome diversity, seek out those very different from yourself… Hidden Brain’s recipe for happiness.  


Guatemala: Poor…and Happy. Why?

They Count Their Blessings

By Shlomo Maital


   I am very troubled by the paradox of increasing wealth and income and stagnant or even decreasing (self-measured) happiness. If we THINK we are unhappy, or less happy, then of course we are.

   An unlikely source, Al Jazeera, sent to me by a friend, Einar Tangen, tells about Guatemala, a poor country riddled with problems – with happy RESILIENT people.   Here is an excerpt:

   Why is Guatemala one of the world’s happiest countries? Despite high rates of violence and poverty, Guatemala is consistently in the top 10 of happiest countries globally. For millions of people around the world, physical and social isolation are causing chronic loneliness.   As a result, many researchers today fear solitude could be the next big public health issue, cutting years off people’s lives . Perhaps people like Silvia Pablo have something to share with the world – and teach it.

     The 21-year-old Guatemalan in no stranger to loneliness. She was born with spina bifida and was shut inside her mother’s house for 10 years after her father left them. But Pablo says her faith kept her going and helped her overcome her daily struggles. Today she has own wheelchair and works at a factory.

   “I think my happiness comes from God,” she says. “Yes, there are difficult times. But with God’s help, we can overcome any obstacle or sad situation. We need to live the lives we’re born into … and try to be happy through our faith.”

And Pablo is not alone.   Despite high rates of violent crime, poverty and corruption, Guatemala is consistently in the top 10 of happiest countries in the world.   “Guatemala is often found near the top of the global list for inequality and violence; more than 50 per cent of the population lives in poverty and around 13 people are murdered every day,” Al Jazeera’s David Mercer said from Antigua.

“Yet some international polls report that people here are some of the happiest in the world.”   Psychologist Andres Pinto says that in addition to faith and family, resilience is key to helping people in the country fight off loneliness, anxiety and depression.   “Many Guatemalans have suffered a lot, and don’t have much to lose,” he says. “When they encounter problems they know they have to work hard to overcome them. Of course we’re not all like this, but resilient people can teach us a lot.”

But Pablo likes to put it a different way. Happy people are not those who have the most, she says, but those who are most grateful for what they have.

Remember that popular song? “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep..and then I fall asleep, counting my blessings.”     Living in wealthy countries, most of us have a lot. Do we appreciate it? Or do we just want more and more and more….   When is “enough”?   And can we learn from Guatemala, and emulate Silvia Pablo?


 Hug a Stranger?

By Shlomo  Maital

Happy Money

  I’ve blogged before about the book by UBC social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and Harvard Business School marketing expert Michael Norton, “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”  In their New York Times Op-Ed, the two scholars report on an interesting experiment done by one of their students, Gillian M. Sandstrom.  The idea was to test the hypothesis that what matters most to us is our closest ties (with spouses and close relatives), not  interactions with minor random strangers.   It’s an extension of their work that shows how badly we spend our money, and how it often fails to bring us happiness.

    She had her subjects carry clickers, one red, one black, all day.  They clicked the red one when they interacted with someone close to them.  They clicked the black one when they interacted with someone they didn’t know.

    Her finding?  Introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.  Not surprising.  But  she also found that “interactions with [strangers] correlated at least as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties [ our loved ones].”  

   “Even the bit players in our lives may influence our well-being,” they note.

  So – you may not quite be up to hugging a stranger, and the results may not be great if you do,   but,  why not chat with a stranger?  In an age when people are increasingly alienated, alone, isolated, even with Facebook and Twitter (or perhaps because of them),   a face-to-face conversation with a stranger can sometimes provide great comfort.

     In the end, human beings are highly social animals.  Technology seems bent on making us over into go-it-alone individuals.  Time to fight back.

It’s Not How Much You Earn, It’s How You Spend it!

By Shlomo Maital

           Help Others

   As an aging economist (Ph.D. 1967), I want to propose a vote of thanks to the psychologists.  They have saved my discipline from total irrelevance.

   We economists for years asked, how can people, and countries, earn more and grow wealthier?  How can we make more money?

    Alas, it turns out, I and my colleagues were asking the wrong question.  We ruined our planet by striving for continual economic growth, and created massive inequality in wealth and income distribution that is destabilizing nations and the world, by preaching extreme free-market theory that contributed to the 2008 financial collapse.  Good work, economists. 

    So, what is the right question?

    How can we SPEND our money better, both as individuals, as families, and as nations?  Not how can we make more of it.

    And a strong answer comes from solid research by psychologists Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton (U.B.C., Simon Fraser, and Harvard, respectively). *

     They begin by asking, if you dug into a jacket pocket stored since winter, and found $20, would you spend it on yourself, give to a homeless person, or buy your partner a bouquet of tulips?  They ask this, because “how people spend their money may be at least as important (for their happiness) as the amount of money they have”.

   In their experiment, they gave people on a university campus $5, or $20, and asked them to spend it by the end of day.  Half of the participants were told to spend the money on themselves.  Half were told to spend the money on somone else (prosocial spending). 

   That evening,  “people who had been assigned to spend the money on someone else reported happier moods over the course of the day than did those people assigned to spend the money on themselves”.  And the amount of money the participants received had no bearing on their perceived happiness.

   Interestingly, the economists’ fallacy prevails in our perceptions.  “When we described the experiment to other participants, …they believed that they would be happier spending more money ($20 rather than $5) and that they would be happier spending it on themselves.”  

  In other words:  We believe that selfishness promotes our happiness, and we believe that more (money) is better than less,  two of the axioms of economic theory.

   And we are wrong.

   So, thanks psychologists!   At the end of the day, just before I fall asleep, I review my day and what I achieved.  Invariably, a day when I did something good for someone – family, friends, strangers – is one that leaves me falling asleep smiling.  And when I wake, I remind myself to do things that will create that feeling later that evening. 

    Give it a try!  

*  Dunn, Aknin and Norton. “Prosocial spending and happiness: using money to benefit others pays off”.    Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 23, 1,  pp. 41-47,  2014. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital