Computing Applications Viewpoint

What Every Engineer and Computer Scientist Should Know: The Biggest Contributor to Happiness

Seeking the fundamental factors instrumental to happiness.
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  3. Footnotes
person holding smily face sign in front of face

My teams at MIT and our spin-out companies have worked for years to create technology that is both intelligent and able to improve people's lives. Through research drawing from psychiatry, neuroscience, psychology, and affective computing, I have learned some surprising things. In some cases, they are principles we have embedded into technology that interacts with people. Guess what? People like it. After one year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realize that the principles we learned apply not only to making smart robots or software agents, but also to the people around us. They give us lessons for how to live happier lives, and happier engineers are better at solving creative problems and have more fun.

Researchers have studied what brings happiness in life, and what, at the end of life, people wish they had done. While many factors contribute, do you know the biggest one?

Almost never late in life do people say: "I wish I had invented a smarter or faster device," "I wish I had made more money," "I wish I had given more TED talks," "I wish I had climbed higher in my business," or "I wish I had authored more books." Even this pinnacle of achievement is not uttered: "I wish I had written an article for an ACM magazine." Instead, almost always, people wish that they had done a better job at building meaningful authentic human relationships, and spending time in those relationships.

This finding is a general one, whether studying human happiness or end-of-life reflections. They apply to hard-working, well-educated computer scientists or engineers and also to many kinds of people, different races and cultures, rich and poor, male and female, uneducated or over-educated.

All of the patents, publications, presentations, and personal technical achievements can be amazing: They can literally save lives and bring immense delight, win us world acclaim, fill our shelves with awards, tally up clicks online, and even make our resumes impressively long. However, they all pale in comparison to something that is even more joy-giving: Achieving deeply satisfying, personally-significant human relationships.

How do you engineer great relationships? Here are three helpful principles you can test in your own life and relationships. If you build AI that interacts directly with people, you can build these principles into those interactions too. I learned these principles while trying to engineer more intelligence in machines, specifically computers with skills of social-emotional intelligence. The skills derive from studies of human relationships and they apply not only when the interactions involve two people, but also when one is a computer (including chatbots, software agents, robots, and other things programmed to talk with us). The three principles below can help improve relationships, human or AI.

Principle #1: Feedback is essential to learning and improving. A machine learning algorithm can improve its performance if you give it accurate feedback such as +1 "correct" or -1 "wrong," or other corrective labels or procedural guidance; similarly, your relationship skills get better when you seek and incorporate feedback. Here are two examples how to do this, and you can invent variations:

  • Ask, "Hey, at the end of this month, would you please tell me three things I did that you liked, and one thing that I could have done better?" Then mark your calendar with a time you'll meet to get the feedback. The 3:1 Good:Bad ratio acknowledges human hedonic asymmetry. It is easier to digest negative feedback if it is weighted by a greater quantity of positive feedback. Do this for 12 months and observe your relationship-improving learning gains grow.
  • After a conversation or interaction that did not go well, and later when things are calm and positive, softly ask: "Would you be willing to talk about how [that prior interaction] went? I'd like to hear how you felt about it, and how I could have done my part better." If they agree, then (here's the hard part): Listen without interrupting, and practice Principle #2.

How do you engineer great relationships?

Principle #2: Conversations contain errors that need to be detected and processed intelligently. The speaker may not accurately encode their meaning into words, or you may hear their words inaccurately, or you may hear accurately, but perceive them differently than the speaker intended. Other kinds of errors can happen too. Here is a two-step way to fix errors, and you may develop others:

  • Repeat back what you heard, but not exactly. Using some of the same words is good because it shows that you were listening. Also, it has been shown that people like people more when they reuse their words. Using slightly different paraphrasing of what you heard is best, as it demonstrates that you might have been thinking about what you heard. Also, you do not want to annoy the other person by sounding like a parrot or a badly programmed chatbot.a Showing them evidence that you were listening can be more important than listening.
  • Give them a chance to adjust what they said, after you tell them what you received. They know you have an imperfect brain (sorry) and possibly also imperfect ears. You will not perfectly receive what they send. They may not realize that they also sent it imperfectly. Thus, enable them to observe what you received, so it can be fixed if needed.

This is easier to do than to describe. For example, person P might tell you,

"It made me mad when you said YZX."

Now a short quiz for you: Which reply is best?

  1. "It made you mad when I said YZX"
  2. "It sounds like I made you upset when I said YZX. Is that the case?"

They are both good, but (b) is better. Why? Because you don't sound like a parrot and you used Principle #1 to invite them to correct you. It is wise to solicit feedback, because you might not have it right, even if you used the right words. This principle is especially vital when the message describes feelings.

Feedback is essential to learning and improving.

Note that you could say back to them exactly what they said, and they might still say you got it wrong. "How is that rational?" you might ask. It is rational because, by hearing it reflected back from you, they may suddenly realize that what they said was not actually what they intended to communicate. The error may have been theirs, encoding their message unsuccessfully. In short, you can help engineer better communication and a better relationship by putting redundancy into the channel, and making observable to them what it is that you heard. The result is that the other person feels better understood.

Note that the shortcuts, "I understand you" or "I understand what you feel" are usually counterproductive. "I understand" does not communicate to them what you understand. It is essentially a time-wasting phrase. The communication is not complete until you tell them what it is that you understand. It can be especially productive to try to put into words what feeling it is that you think they are having, for example, "It sounds like you might be feeling frustrated …" and keep trying to get it right until they say "That's right." The process of showing you understand well enough to restate it in your own words makes for a stronger relationship, which moves you both closer to happiness.

Computer scientists and engineers are almost always trying to fix things and make them better.

An intriguing fact is that none of the principles described here involve saying anything clever, or coming up with good fixes to problems. Computer scientists and engineers are almost always trying to fix things and make them better. The method above actually does something more powerful: It gives the other person the gift of feeling understood. This gift often has the result of freeing up their cognitive-affective resources so that they can fix their own problem. Sometimes, showing understanding of feelings can make the relationship better than the cleverest "fix."

Principle #3: Active, constructive responses generate joy. Suppose you are really busy working on your own deadline, and your colleague interrupts with news he's super-happy about, "Hey, you know that proposal I worked on? It got selected to get complete funding!" Which of the following would be your likely response?

  1. They selected your ideas? Don't you realize this is going to be so much extra work—maybe they are exploiting you?
  2. "Oh? Really?" (Then look back at your screen, "Ugh, so much email.")
  3. Congratulations!
  4. Congratulations! What a nice recognition of your effort! (Perhaps you raise your hand to high-five.) How do you feel about that? (You listen and share smiles, celebrating the moment's joy.)

While none of these options takes more than a minute, which of them is likely to deepen and improve the relationship? Of all of the options, generally the strategy in (d) is best—it actively amplifies the moment's positive feelings into something even larger and greater, helping construct a better relationship. By speaking words (less than 10 seconds), you give them a gift of sharing and enlarging their joy.

While (a), (b) and (c) save a few seconds, what are seconds compared to a lifetime when a relationship is on the line? The responses in (a) and (b) leave the person's happy mood ignored or diminished—they are termed "destructive" by experts in Positive Psychology, as they take wind out of the sails of the relationship. While (c) is not destructive, it is passive. It can be easily transformed into (d), actively promoting your colleague's joy and even amplifying your own joy. A few seconds saying something like (d) can boost moods, bringing manifold benefits. A positive mood boost can expand a person's ability to solve problems efficiently, and a positive social interaction today is also associated with a reduction in stress tomorrow. That is a lot of benefit for a few seconds difference.

The three principles described here are not perfect or complete, and this Viewpoint has omitted significant details like the importance of sincerity, context, forgiveness, and authentic empathy and love. Nonetheless, they provide valuable guidelines for building better relationships. Principles 1, 2, and 3, can all be used to inform the engineering of a better chatbot, robot, AI dialogue system, or customer support system, one with more social-emotional intelligence. More importantly, the principles can be used with anyone—children, spouses, friends, bosses, colleagues, and even enemies. The best way to get rid of your enemies is to make them your friends, and these principles can help to turn any relationship in a more positive direction. Yes, these principles even apply during videoconferencing and physical distancing. With these three principles, you can make progress toward deeper and more meaningful relationships, and that is a key step toward achieving greater lifelong happiness.

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