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.