Posted in Philosophy

Zero-Sum Game

Game theory is the study of using mathematical models to understand how rational decision-makers would strategically act in a given environment. One concept from game theory is that of the zero-sum game, where there is a finite amount of utility shared between players, meaning that if one person gains something, another must lose something to balance it out.

A classic example is a game of competitive sports, where there can be only one winner. For you to win, someone else must lose. A zero-sum game can have as few as two players (such as a singles tennis match) or many players (such as a game of poker, where every dollar you win is a dollar taken away from the other players).

From a young age, we see many examples of zero-sum games. We play sports and board games where there is a clear winner. We are marked on curve and compared to our classmates in exams. We compete for jobs and romantic partners. Competitiveness is driven into us and is sold as a survival skill.

This leads us to be prone to zero-sum thinking which can lead to many biases. Some studies show students acting more competitively and less inclined to help their peers if they were graded on a curve (e.g. percentiles), rather than grade categories (e.g. A, B, C). We think that if someone is a jack of all trades, they are masters of none, because surely no one can “have it all”. Many people oppose immigration because they believe that immigrants will take the finite number of jobs and houses. Some people negotiate aggressively in a deal, thinking that “your loss is my gain”. In severe cases, people may even sabotage others to increase their gains.

However, life is not always a zero-sum game. Game theory also describes non-zero-sum games, where the net balance of utility between all participants can be higher (or lesser) than zero. Simply put, in a non-zero-sum game, there can be more than one winner and sometimes, everyone can be a winner.

The best example of this is the mutual benefit born from cooperation. Zero-sum thinking may dictate that you must conquer your neighbouring tribe because they are your competition, but throughout history, cooperation, peace and harmony have prevailed as the winning strategy, because it results in greater net gain.

Happiness is also a non-zero-sum game, where just because someone else is happy, it does not take away from your happiness. But for some reason, some people cannot stand to watch others happy, or feel they must be happier than those around them. These people constantly try to “one-up” others, not recognising others’ happiness, or even sabotaging others and making them feel bad because they can’t stand to see other people be happier than them. This is an extremely toxic, unnecessary behaviour, that should be unacceptable in any kind of relationship, particularly between friends or family.

The far healthier behaviour is to be happy for others’ happiness, regardless of your life situation. This is why compassion is one of the keys for happiness. Realising that we can all find our own joy and contentness and help each other find happiness is a key step in being sustainably happy.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in Life & Happiness


You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Recipe For Happiness: Compassion

(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here:

Human beings are social creatures. It is extremely difficult to be happy when you are isolated and lonely. The most important lesson on happiness is that we are truly happiest when we connect with others.

Connection – physical, emotional or spiritual – is linked to the neurotransmitter oxytocin. It is released in large amounts when we feel loved, such as when a mother sees her newborn, when we hug or even when we feel nostalgia.

Happiness from connection is special in that it is sustainable. Happiness from excitement, such as through money, winning and sex, is mediated by dopamine and wears off very quickly. You need more and more “hits” of dopamine to feel the same again. Oxytocin, on the other hand, allows you to feel happy just from recalling memories of your connections.

So how can we use oxytocin to become happier? As mentioned above, it is released through human connection. The easiest way to do this is spending time with your loved ones – have a conversation, share a laugh, get to know each other on a deeper level.
But there is an even more effective way: compassion.


Because of our social nature, we have an innate desire to help those in need and alleviate suffering. But in modern society, we are so busy and consumed by our own lives that this instinct becomes dulled.
The first step to compassion is empathy. Through empathy, we can recognise and understand another person’s emotion. To do this, you have to practise the ability of seeing things from another person’s point of view. Consider how their values and experiences may influence how they behave and what they are feeling currently.

However, empathy alone does not create happiness. Compassion is when you recognise that someone is suffering and feel the desire to help alleviate it. Even the thought of wanting to help has been shown to induce happiness. When we show kindness and it makes even an iota of difference to the person’s suffering – such as putting a smile on their face – our brain instantly gets drowned in a sea of oxytocin and we genuinely feel good.

But as mentioned above, our sense of compassion has been worn away by the stress of daily life. Here is an exercise that can help train your compassion level.

Firstly, think of someone close to you who is suffering and wish them good fortune. The more often you do this, the easier the thoughts will come to you naturally.

Next, try doing the same to strangers. When you see someone on the streets or sit next to them on a bus, think to yourself: “I wish they would have a good day”. Even if you do not know who they are, you can wish them good fortune. They may not telepathically hear your thoughts, but the important part is training your compassion “muscle”.

The last step is the hardest. Think of your worst enemy, then wish them good fortune too. It is extremely difficult to respond to someone we hate with love. This is called uncomplementary behaviour in psychology and we are hardwired to do the opposite. Yet, when we do show kindness in the face of cruelty and hate, it can turn the situation upside-down and both parties can feel safer and happier.

The more you train your level of compassion, the more you will find that your interactions with others will be changing. You might find yourself smiling to strangers more, treating them with more kindness and feeling that the world is not that horrible a place after all. Most importantly, you might be able to show self-compassion, the most difficult task of all. Don’t be so hard on yourself; forgive your own mistakes and learn to love the awesome person that you are.

Be generous with your kindness. Every person in the world wants to be happy and a simple act of kindness from your end may shine some light on their day, and through empathy, you can feel happier also.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Compassion Meditation

One way of achieving happiness is through compassion – the wish that other people will be happy and free from suffering. Empathy is a powerful tool and when others are happy, we tend to feel happy as well (but not always). But in modern society, people are so busy with their own lives and stresses that they do not have the luxury of caring for the well-being of others. The result of this is our compassion drying up, crippling our ability to be happy. Here is a simple meditation that helps train your compassion.

The first step of this meditation is simple: think of someone you know that is suffering and wish them good fortune. It could be a friend who has gone through a break-up or a family member who is ill. Wish that they will find the right one eventually or that they will get better soon. An important point is that you should be sincere with this, ergo it is easier to do it for people you care about. Over time, you will find that it is easier and easier to wish for someone to not suffer and it will slowly become almost a “habit”.

Once you feel yourself becoming comfortable with this, try it out on strangers on the street. If you see someone, think to yourself “I wish that person will have a good day”. It could be that you wish that person will have a loving family to go home to, or even a little thing such as someone complimenting them. Much like training an unused muscle, it will be difficult at first but you will slowly see your compassion grow and strengthen, as you genuinely wish the better for others. Perhaps you will even find yourself doing little things to brighten someone else’s day, such as giving a compliment, listening to someone’s problems or giving a small but thoughtful gift.

The ultimate step of this meditation is being compassionate towards someone you truly dislike. If you are able to wish good fortune on your worst enemy and sincerely hope that they would be happy, you would truly be a compassionate person. Like any skill, it takes much training and effort to train yourself to be this compassionate. But even if you cannot reach this level, every single step towards becoming a more compassionate person will make you feel just a little bit happier.