Social | Matthew Lieberman


Published in: 2013

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The book is written by the American professor Matthew Lieberman and is based on the latest in neuroscience. The main thesis is that our brains are socially programmed – our main goal is to “connect” with other people. It is even more important than our own interests. Lieberman sees shortcomings in Maslow’s ladder of needs and does not believe that social well-being is at the ‘icing on the cake’ level – it is as important as food and shelter.   

“If we keep eyes open for it, we will see plenty of behaviors that we can’t quite square with self-interest as the sole motivator in our lives. We have failed to understand them because we have failed to fully understand what kind of beings we are”

DEFAULT MODE = SOCIAL. When we are not actively involved in something, our thought activity enters a social default state. Then we almost always think of ourselves, of other people or how we interact with them. The explanation for this is in human evolution. The human brain reached its present size about 200,000 years ago. Being socially inclined was vital for survival and reproduction. Evolution has thus programmed us to be social.

“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”

WE ARE NOT CREATED TO ”FIND OURSELVES”. During human history, a life has been divided into three phases; first we are children and are taken care of, then we become adults and take care of and finally we become old and again are taken care of. Historically, there have been no gaps between the phases. But in today’s society, we have a time period of 5-20 years where we only focus on ourselves – “soul searching” or “finding oneself”. However, this is not something we are programmed to be able to do and thus are not very successful with.

SOCIAL PAIN = PHYSICAL PAIN. Lieberman has together with research colleagues studied how we are affected by social pain. With MRI scans, they have been able to compare how our brain is affected by social and physical pain. The result was that we can feel as bad about being alone or going through a divorce as we can about breaking a leg. Our brain processes social pain in the same way it processes physical pain. Mother Theresa, who witnessed people in the worst possible life circumstances, said that “a life without other people is the worst disease any human being can ever experience”.

We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it”. And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response.”

SOCIAL INVESTMENTS. Lieberman believes that one of the easiest things we can do to improve our lives is to strengthen our social relationships. It is both cheap, easy and nice. All we need to do is set aside a little more time for that. Time that we get back many times over in the form of increased well-being and higher productivity at work. Studies have shown that a person with a good social life but who is a heavy smoker is happier than a single person in top health. For well-being, it is better to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day than to be alone.

MORE SOCIAL = MORE CLEAR-MINDED. The more weight we give to our social lives, the higher our quality of life will be. And with a higher quality of life comes more clarity. By secreting a lot of dopamine in our relaxed “default mode”, we increase the efficiency of our prefrontal cortex during working hours.

STRONG DISCIPLINE = A GOOD LIFE. Good self-control is a strong cornerstone for a good life. Those with good self-control usually have higher incomes, higher credit scores, better health and a better social life. This has to do with how they interact with the world around them. When we are stressed about something external, it is not the thing itself that stresses us, but how we choose to let it affect us. If you can control yourself how you face adversity, you are well on your way to a satisfied life. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami has summed it up in “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. ”

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