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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Some things I've learnt so far in life

As I sit here trying to put into words some of the important lessons that I’ve learnt, I realize that a lot of them are quite complicated. They are also quite interconnected and relate to each other, but I’m not sure that I can be both coherent and brief, so for the sake of brevity, here they are, presented individually:

1.        Nothing is more important than happiness


I really do believe that ultimately, the only thing that really matters is happiness. More precisely, your own happiness is what’s truly important. Other people’s happiness sometimes matters too, but never as much as your own. It’s really quite complicated to explain without going into a lengthy discussion, but here’s the core of it: The primary motivation behind all our actions is happiness, and because of this, before doing anything, we should consider its worth and value in terms of happiness.

What I mean by this is that before doing anything, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Has this made happy in the past?
  • Will this make me happy now?
  • Will this make me happy later?
  • Has this made me unhappy in the past?
  • Will this make me unhappy now?
  • Will this make me unhappy later?
  • Has not doing this made me unhappy in the past?
  • Will not doing this make me happy now?
  • Will not doing this make me happy later?

Some of these questions might seem to be the same one phrased differently, but really they’re not. For example, here’s a simple example about deciding to do some unpleasant and unenjoyable homework that’s due in a week:
Will this make me unhappy now? Yes, slightly. But if I don’t do it now, I’ll have to do it later – so will not doing this make me unhappy later? YES! If I finish it now, will I be happy later? Yes! Will not doing it now make me happy? Not particularly

Then, weighing and comparing the unhappiness and happiness, you realize that doing it now will make you slightly unhappy for now, but that the happiness later on is worth it. You realize also that the unhappiness of doing it now is less compared to the unhappiness of doing it later under stress.

Of course, this is a rather trivial example, but it should apply to any and all decisions. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the true importance of all things should be measured in happiness. For example, if I had to help a close friend, but it meant missing an important lecture, I’d simply have to consider which of the two will bring me more happiness in the long run. I’m not saying it’s easy though. It requires you to project yourself into the future, to guess at the consequences of your decision, evaluate the potential happiness/unhappiness of the outcome of your decision and so on. It’s a simple idea, but not always easy to put into practice.

2.        Some things are simple, but not easy


When we say that something is simple, we mean that it can’t be broken down into smaller elements, or that it doesn’t have to be broken down in order to be understood. When we say that something is easy, we mean that it’s not difficult to do – in other words, that it doesn’t require too much effort or hardship to accomplish. 

Having defined “simple” and “easy”, it’s not a paradox that some things can be simple and yet not easy. For example, saying “no” to a request is, for the most part, simple. It’s a simple idea: someone asks you for a favour and you deny them the favour. Yet, a lot of the times, it’s really not easy – so much so that we just say yes.

Another example is in programming. So often when I have a program to write, I look at the problem and I work out the solution in my head, and I say “Oh it’s really quite simple. It shouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours”. Yet so often, it ends up taking much longer. So often, algorithms that are simple to understand turn out to be not so easy to implement.

3.        Friends come and go


Friendship is a relationship between two people who hold mutual affection for each other. By this definition, I’d say that lasting friendship is quite rare, given that affection is volatile. We can stop liking someone for a countless number of reasons: resentment, dissatisfaction, or even just boredom. 

By this same definition, I’d say that a lot of “friendships” are not genuine, either because the affection isn’t mutual, or because there isn’t any at all. So many friendships I’ve seen and been in where only one of the parties has affection for the other, while the other just tolerates the first. 

I don’t think that it’s a problem however, that most friendships don’t last, or that a lot of them are fake. It’s just how things are, and accepting it makes life much more pleasant. After all, absolutely every friendship comes to an end, if not by separation, by death. So just like with any other good thing that comes to an end, it’s okay and normal to feel a bit empty or sad afterwards, but life must go on.

4.        It’s human to feel all sorts of emotions


Even though happiness is very important, it doesn’t mean that there is no room for other emotions. All emotions are part of the human experience, including the negative ones like sadness, disappointment, jealousy, anger, regret, fear, hate and disgust.

They exist for a reason, and they’re all indispensable for being a whole and sane human: disgust and hate are there for self-preservation, regret so we learn from our mistakes, anger and jealousy show we care, disappointment is just one of the possible results of our capacity to have expectations and sadness drives us harder to find happiness.

It’s important to realize that every emotion has its place so that we don’t waste our energy on futile attempts to fight them. For example, sometimes we wake up with a bad mood for no apparent reason. We should just acknowledge it and move on. By not getting angry about our bad mood, we save ourselves frustration and self-hate, and so avoid the downward spiral of negative emotions. It makes sense really – if you’re already down, why kick yourself?

5.        Most things are not absolute


People are often quick to label things as “good” or “bad” or “wrong” or “right”. A lot of times, it’s silly, especially when the labels are applied to things that are for the most part inconsequential. Other times, it’s silly because it’s an oversimplification. The truth of the matter is that a lot of things are not intrinsically good or bad. A lot of things are what you make of them, and the more people realize this, the less they’d expend their energy trying to impose their subjective evaluations on others.

6.        Communication is intrinsically flawed


We use language to communicate, and therein lies the flaw: our thoughts and emotions are often just too complicated to express with language. Compound that with the fact that a lot depends on context and we get all sorts of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. 

On top of that, everyone has different levels of languages skills, so the nuances we might think we’re implying when we use a particular word instead of another could be completely lost on the listener. Sometimes words have different meanings and connotations for different people. Add to that the fact that half of the time no one really listens carefully, it’s no wonder than the subtleties of intonation or accompanying gestures end up unheard and unseen.   

To top it all off, our senses play tricks on us all the time such that what we hear or see isn’t at all what was said or done. There are countless examples of this, such as optical illusions where we’re convinced that the reality is different from what it really is.  For example, when reading, we often don’t notice duplicate words. And as for our sense of hearing, it can’t always be trusted either, thanks to things the McGurk effect.

All these are problematic, but it’s not catastrophic. If we just realize that communication is intrinsically flawed, we’d be much more prepared to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to forgive them for the hurtful or offensive things they say. We’d also be much more patient with others, and less prone to call them idiots if they don’t understand us right away.

7.        Everyone lies – a lot


Lying is inevitable. Everyone lies every day. We lie to simplify long stories, we lie to get out of conversations, we lie to save our pride, we lie to preserve relationships – we lie for countless reasons, and in all sorts of ways. We lie so much in fact, that truths shock us more than lies ever could.

This is not a judgement, it’s just an observation. I don’t believe it’s a problem that we lie. It’s part of human nature. Half the time the person we’re lying to knows we’re lying anyway.

8.        Everyone makes mistakes


It’s important to realize that people make mistakes. If we realize this, we’ll be less harsh with ourselves for our own mistakes, and we’ll be more forgiving of others. Personally, I tend to forgive all mistakes quite readily. In fact, even when someone does something very wrong and makes me very angry, the anger dissipates very quickly when I learn that it’s just a mistake and they apologize for it. I just tell myself that I could very well have made the mistake myself.


There you have it, eight lessons I’ve learnt so far in life. I’m not saying that I’m definitely right. These are my opinions as of today. I might very well change my mind or see things differently as I get older and have new experiences, but for the time being, this is some of what I’ve gathered in 21 years of my life.

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