Advancing National Service

The Science of Finding Life Lessons in Obituaries

November 30, 2017
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The Science of Finding Life Lessons in Obituaries
Lux Narayan analyzed more than 2,000 obituaries to discover what people valued in life. Photo by Michael Williams/Getty Images
What a study of more than 2,000 death notices can teach us about the value of service.

If you were to die today, how would you be remembered?  What would your obituary list as your greatest achievement? Odds are, it would include a story of how you helped others.

Lux Narayan, chief executive officer of UnMetric, an Artificial Intelligence-powered social media analytics platform, analyzed more than 2,000 non-paid, editorial obituaries between 2015 and 2016 for commonalities. He uncovered a consistent theme: the use of the word “help,”  as in, doing a good deed or giving to others.

“Our definition of ‘life’ goes beyond our base essentials of food and shelter,” Narayan tells NationSwell. “Help could be in various forms, such as stagecraft to help wounded people or paving the way for the first black congresswoman. It’s not always help in the conventional sense.”

Your brain doesn’t just like the idea of helping others — it gets high off of it. According to a 2017 study, the act of giving causes your brain to release dopamine, the same feel-good chemicals produced during sex or celebration. Giving can also help you sleep. The end result? An increased desire to repeat the feeling and give more, which can lead to long-term benefits for the giver, the receiver and their communities.

Societies and religions have promoted kindness and generosity throughout history. But despite a near-universal agreement on the value of service, the exact amount needed to generate community-level benefits is still unknown.

Many social innovations fail to reach their potential, according to a 2014 report published by Nesta, a United Kingdom-based charity, because the ability to scale is often elusive — or not even possible.

“Not every problem needs a one-size-fits-all solution,” according to Narayan, a speaker at the recent NationSwell Summit on Solutions, who says that innovators often become trapped when forcing ideas to scale.

Narayan cites an example from his home country of India, where a news organization spotlights someone doing something positive for his or her village. By virtue of the media attention, the act of service is now scalable. But if the individual had focused on scale immediately, the efficacy of the solution at the local level might have been reduced.

“There was no need for that one person to do anything beyond helping their community,” he says. “They did it with just a few people in mind.”

Narayan acknowledges that allure of scale can be difficult to resist.

“We fall prey to the idea of touching millions of people versus one or two,” he says. “But the beauty is that if you do something beautiful and meaningful for even 10 people, it makes just as much a difference.”

This post is paid for by AARP. Lux Narayan spoke at the 2017 NationSwell Summit on Solutions as a member of the AARP Well-Lived Life panel.

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