#firstworldproblems: why this hashtag restores my faith in humanity

In my last post about social metadata, I mentioned how great it is that we’re considering the tone and context of our day-to-day messages. My absolute favourite hashtag, #firstworldproblems, is a fantastic example. It demonstrates an unprecedented level of awareness, gratitude, and unity in our day-to-day thinking.

Gratitude: a product of information, not age

For decades, mothers have told their children to be grateful for their brussel sprouts because other children were starving, but it’s always been a bit of an eye-roller. Finding happiness by considering the misfortune of others is kind of a Zen thing; a quite subtle, spiritual exercise that becomes more accessible as you get older.

At least, so we thought. Recent evidence suggests it’s not about age at all: gratitude happens when we feel enough empathy, which happens automatically when we get enough information. In the past, many of us didn’t acquire that kind of perspective until we got older, but today, we’re processing a lot more information a lot younger.

Remember how I said Twitter made us smarter?

We know an idea has really ‘sunk in’ when it becomes not only a part of language, but a form of humour among young people. Teenagers using #firstworldproblems is proof, to me, that global empathy is taking hold. We’ve realized our lot is better than others’, and that we ought to feel grateful for that; and we’ve accepted it so completely, we’re actually able to laugh at our own ridiculous complaints. As a result we’re more likely to help others, and we’re also happier with our own lives. Twenty or thirty years ago, who would have dreamed it would be cool to be honest and self-aware?

We’re doing so much critical thinking, now, that we aren’t just getting logically smarter; we’re also getting emotionally smarter. We’re learning, younger, the value of concepts like self-honesty and conscious gratitude; concepts previous generations struggled with through decades of therapy. #firstworldproblems makes me very, very happy. It’s the only way I know to mock my friends, and make them feel better, at the same time. For the west especially, bringing that kind of zen into casual conversation is a huge accomplishment!

Global Empathy part 2: a new reality

Last time, I introduced empathy as humanity’s secret weapon. Empathy effectively makes us smarter, because it highlights the big picture when we’re unable to see it for ourselves. There are good, logical reasons to help others, to work together, but let’s face it: those reasons are pretty sophisticated, and can be hard to see. Empathy makes our decision easier by making the best choice feel like the best choice. It helps eliminate the doubt and fear of relying on our own analysis. It gives us motivation and courage to act.

Empathy springs from information

And it happens automatically! All we need to trigger empathy is a little information.  When we learn enough about another person’s situation, it’s suddenly ‘real’ for us; we move from thought into emotion. We feel their pain – we don’t choose to, we just do – and want to help, if we’re able. If we look back, later, we’ll see that this was also the logical choice for our own benefit, but we couldn’t have figured that out on our own. The more we cooperate, the better life is, for everyone.

When we fail to help eachother, it’s because we don’t know enough to make us feel about the situation. In a tribe of 50 people, a mentally-ill person unable to work would never be left to starve; their obvious need for help would trigger empathy in the people around them, and they would be fed. But in a city of a million people, we don’t know everyone’s name and personal situation, and people do get left behind. City people aren’t any less caring; they just don’t have enough information about each individual to trigger their empathy.

Faces, not numbers

Sure, we have statistics, but they mostly confuse us; when we’re simply thinking about a problem, we are easily overwhelmed. But when, for instance, a charity campaign focuses on individuals – their faces, their emotions, their unique stories – we’re much more likely to help, because we’re feeling. For our empathy to kick in, we need more than just numbers; we need real human stories.

Limited info = limited empathy

Empathy depends on detailed, subjective information. And so for several millennia we’ve been stalled, because of the limits on our communication. We’ve struggled with wars and inequality, because we still couldn’t empathize with entire segments of humanity. They were too far away, too poor to have a voice; for one reason or another, we didn’t see enough of them to connect emotionally. As I mentioned a few posts ago: in previous centuries, we only got information that was backed by money or power, or at least agreeable to somebody with money or power. Charities could only share those individual stories if enough people donated money for ad-space, and if the campaign didn’t offend any corporate sponsors.

Unlimited info = unlimited possibility!

But global communication changes that. Now we can all share our faces, emotions, and stories with the whole world. People starving in Africa aren’t just a sentence in a textbook or a news story anymore; they’re individuals, whose pictures I can see and voices I can hear. Forces of power and control may tell me a certain group of people are full of hate, not worth caring about; but I learn otherwise when I read their blogs.

Extra knowledge tips the scales, and suddenly I’m feeling for people – and that changes everything. How I think, what I say, what I choose to buy, how I vote. Soon, I’m acting in a way that’s best not just for my family, for my pack, for my city or region or country or continent, but in fact for the whole entire world. And, as I’ve said before: when enough people change how they think, social and political change is inevitable.

The more we know about eachother, the grander the scale on which we can – nay, will, automaticallycooperate. This is a new age in human history; the dawn of Global Empathy. What can we accomplish, how much better can we make the world, when we can all actually feel for the rest of the world? When empathy pushes us to collaborate on a global scale? It’s only just begun…

Global Empathy, part 1: humanity’s secret weapon

I believe empathy is the crucial factor to human survival – past, present and future. Don’t believe me? Yeah, I thought that might happen, so I’ve made this a two-parter. Since I love to talk about the state of the world today it’s only natural that I start with…. the past. 🙂

Neanderthals: stronger than us, and just as smart

Btw, I’ve drawn considerable inspiration on this from a fantastic PBS miniseries called The Incredible Human Journey, which I heartily recommend.

This time let’s go right back to the beginning: say, 38,000 BC (or so). We – humans – are  not very strong, but we’re resourceful. We use tools to do things our bodies can’t, and we’re social animals; we band together. We look out for the rest of our pack, and fight anything outside. Sure, other species travel in packs, too, but our tools give us an advantage…

…except against the Neanderthals. Neanderthals used tools just as much as we did. In fact, their tools might even have been better than ours. And their bodies were definitely stronger. When a Neanderthal pack fought a Homo Sapiens (modern human) pack, the Neanderthal pack probably won. Fighting to survive was killing us.

So how did we turn it around? We don’t know exactly, but the short answer* is: we took this banding-together concept to the next level. (*in the words of…  me; but I’m basing this on research done by actual anthropologists. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a great start: Rethinking Neanderthals | Smithsonian.com.) We started leaving other Homo Sapiens alone – saving our strength to fight Neanderthals, or even joining forces against them – and gradually, we outnumbered them. We won the war by choosing our battles. But…

Our evolutionary advantage

But the big question is, how did come up with that cooperative strategy? Our instincts told us (heck, they still tell us) to fight anyone we don’t know. How did we override that? It wasn’t with intelligence. Our best thinking wasn’t enough to outweigh the “protect-my-family-against-everyone-else” impulse (indeed, it still isn’t). So how did we see the big picture?

Well, something else happened around the same time: we started making little sculptures and drawing symbols on rocks. And those bits of creativity, made by strangers, had a bizarre effect on our thoughts: they inspired emotions. Humans we’d never met could make stuff that made us feel. Suddenly, we saw beyond the pack. Our feelings broadened our sense of identity. We became a culture.

We all know feelings are a powerful motivator. They speak louder than thoughts, or instincts. When instincts told us to fight eachother, feelings told us we were in it together – and the feelings won. And so, thanks to our empathy with eachother, we survived!

Empathy: simplifying life for 40,000 years

We often describe feelings as complicated, but, in a fundamental way, feelings are a great simplifier. Precisely because they’re so strong, so impossible to ignore. Big-picture logic is subtle and sophisticated; it’s tough to find amidst all the noise, the more immediate choices. In our struggle for survival, empathy cranked the volume on the best choice. Empathy made us shut off our narrow-minded instincts and find our collective strength. By drowning out our thoughts, our feelings made us smarter.

So… jump forward to the 21st-century. Ingrained empathy + brand-new world of global communication = ???? What are your thoughts? I’ll tell you what I think… next time!