Posted in Life & Happiness

The Reason You Are Unhappy

I don’t want to be the reason you’re unhappy. That would just make me unhappy and I really don’t want to be the reason I’m unhappy.

~ Phoebe Buffay, Friends

This appears to be such a simple, whimsical line from a sitcom, but Pheobe’s words carry a surprisingly deep truth.

Too often in life, we are our own reason for being unhappy. As much as we like to blame bad luck, systemic failures, other people’s incompetences and the environment we were raised in, if we examine the root cause of our misery closer, we discover some uncomfortable truths.

For example, a common source of unhappiness is loneliness, particularly the lack of a romantic relationship. There are many reasons people will give as to why they are (involuntarily) single, from self-deprecating comments such as “I’m not pretty enough”, to lamenting their bad luck for not meeting the one yet, to toxic blames such as “girls only go after bad boys, not nice guys like me”.

But are those really the true reasons to your loneliness? Or is it because we haven’t learned to love ourselves yet, hold onto negative beliefs such as a romantic partner being the solution to our deep-seated problems, or feel entitled to love? Perhaps it is because we are too stubborn or scared to take action, putting our hearts on the line by asking our crush out, being vulnerable or even taking the simplest step such as accepting a set-up or trying internet dating.

We often talk about how we can be our own best friend or our worst enemy. Because of our insecurities and anxieties, we often let fear steal our funk, creating barriers to living a happy, full life.

So what is the solution to this curse?

The answer is simple: follow Phoebe’s advice and do not let yourself be the reason that you’re unhappy. If you feel unhappy, take a moment to think about why that is and don’t be afraid to consider that your actions and thoughts might be the cause.

But this is not to say that you should blame and criticise yourself.

Instead, treat yourself with compassion, kindness and love, giving yourself a chance to be happy. Be the manager and mentor to yourself that you’ve always wanted: someone who will let you be the best version of you, clearing roadblocks to your success and happiness. When you discover something that makes you happy, take action to pursue it further, cultivate it and fight to protect it. Seek out new possibilities and exciting opportunities.

Be the reason that you are happy.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Antimatter

Nature is surprisingly balanced. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law of Motion). Energy can change forms in an isolated system, but cannot be created or destroyed as the total energy must remain constant (Law of Conservation of Energy). Similarly, matter is balanced by the existence of antimatter.

Antimatter is a substance that is the polar opposite of matter. For example, instead of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons, anti-protons are negative and anti-electrons (or positrons) are positive. Much like matter, antimatter particles can interact with each other to form more complex particles, such as an anti-atom, meaning that it is conceivable that an entire world could be made out of antimatter.

When antimatter and matter collide with each other, they annihilate. Much like the equation 1 + -1 = 0, the two opposites cancel each other out. Conversely, to create matter out of nothing, you must create an equal amount of antimatter to balance it out. Strangely though, physicists have noted that there is a great imbalance between the two in the observable universe. There seems to be far more matter than antimatter, which does not make sense. The question of why this imbalance exists is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in physics.

An interesting lesson we can take away from antimatter is the concept that to create something out of nothing, you must balance it out with “anti-something”. If you borrow money from the bank, you may have $1000 now, but you have also created a -$1000 debt. The total balance is still 0.

The same concept can be applied to happiness. If something makes you happy, then the possibility exists that the same thing can cause you an equal amount of grief. Let’s say you find a fulfilling relationship with a significant other who brings you extreme joy. This is balanced by the extreme grief that will be brought to you if the relationship is strained or ends abruptly. Ironically, the pursuit of happiness creates more room for potential misery, as grief comes from the loss of something we care about.

So what does this imply? Does it mean that we should avoid falling in love or caring about anything, because it will only hurt us in the end? Should we even bother trying to live a happy life if it is cancelled out by all the sadness that it can bring along the way? Of course, these are silly thoughts. How dull life would be if we did not have any ups or downs.

Instead, the lesson here is that we should be mindful that happiness is not free. Grief is the price we pay so that we can experience the wonderful moments of joy, love and connection that life can give us only if we reach out. If you avoided connecting with someone or taking a leap of faith due to fear of failure or loss, then your life would be empty. This philosophy allows us to be grateful for the joyful moments, while helping us endure grief as we know that is the price we must pay for true happiness.

You can’t let fear steal your funk. To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson: 

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Set In Stone

The Pont des Arts bridge in Paris is famous for being the site of “love locks”. Since 2008, tourists in love have been attaching padlocks inscribed with their names on the railings of the bridge. Millions of such locks have since been placed on the bridge, promising eternal love between the couple. Within 6 years, the total weight of the locks was already starting to cause structural damage to the bridge, with sections collapsing into the Seine River. In 2015, the locks were removed to conserve the historical site, but love locks continue to plague various historical sites and tall places around the globe.

People love to leave a mark. Whether it be a “Steve was here” on a wall or an “Alice + Bob” surrounded by a heart on a tree, graffiti has existed since ancient Greece. But why? What is the psychology behind couples wanting to immortalise their love in a lock, or people carving their names into wood or stone?

Perhaps it is because we know how fragile everything in life is. Life is full of uncertainties. We may die at any given moment. What we think of as true, eternal love may shatter as a result of our impulses or fade away with time. Even our identities and sense of self are unstable, for we do not really know who we are. 

This uncertainty scares us. We feel insecure that the things we love and make us happy can disappear. So to soothe ourselves, we obsess over the idea of permanence. Because our love, our lives and our identities are intangible, we write our names into something that is tangible and (perceived to be) permanent.

But nothing is permanent. Bridges fall and walls crumble. A metal lock will do nothing to eternalise your love other than making you feel slightly secure for a moment. Instead, we should embrace the concept of impermanence

By accepting that nothing is permanent, we can be more grateful for the transient moments of happiness and beauty in life, enjoying the present rather than trying to preserve the future.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Voodoo Death

We inherently fear death. Much of what we do biologically is struggling against death. We eat and drink to sustain ourselves. We feel pain to avoid things that may eventually kill us. Even moments before our death, our brain will flash our life before our eyes to grasp at any past experiences that may help us survive.

Because of this, we are also inherently neurotic. Some fear flying in a plane because they can imagine the plane crashing and burning, even knowing that flying is safer than a car ride. Childhood traumas where we thought we might die cause long-lasting damage to how we behave and think as an adult.

The most interesting example of how the fear of death can affect us is the phenomenon of voodoo death.

American physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper in 1942 studying cases of “voodoo death” – where healthy people (usually from tribal societies) suddenly passed away after being cursed. Voodoo death starts when a person is cursed or condemned to die by a medical person, such as a witch doctor or shaman. The victim and those around them must believe that the curse will actuall kill them (due to the culture or tradition). The victim’s family may even prepare a funeral. The victim loses all hope that they can survive the curse. They then die, even though their body shows no signs of physical ailment.

For example, the Australian Aborigines are known to have practised “boning”, where a witch doctor would point a vexed bone at an enemy, causing the victim to immediately convulse and die. A Nairobi woman passed away within 24 hours of finding out that the fruit she ate was sacred and she committed a great sin. A Maori man, who was told he should never eat wild game meat, died a day after finding out that he had accidentally eaten wild game meat – even though he had eaten in 2 years ago.

Voodoo death is not only limited to pre-modern societies. In the 1990’s, there was a documented case where a patient was diagnosed with terminal metastatic oesophageal cancer. After saying his goodbyes to his family as were his last wishes, he swiftly passed away. On autopsy, they discovered that the cancer had not actually spread that much and was not the cause of death.

There are many theories as to what may cause voodoo death. The traditional thought was that intense fear and stress stimulates the release of catecholamines such as adrenaline, inducing a massive fight-or-flight response, as seen in broken heart syndrome. The surge of adrenaline causes the heart to beat too fast and too strongly, until it gives out and causes cardiac arrest.

However, more recent studies showed that animals that die from stress exhibit signs of the opposite happening – that is, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the common type of fainting spells called vasovagal syncope) is overactive. Because the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the sympathetic (fight-or-flight), it can cause the heart to slow to the point of stopping.

This parasympathetic overactivity may be triggered by a sense of absolute hopelessness, essentially causing the body to “give up” on life. On a related note, the hopeless victim will likely not be eating or drinking much while under extreme emotional duress, so dehydration and catatonia may play a role as well.

Voodoo death is an excellent example of how much power the mind has over the body. Ironically, the fear of death itself can cause death.

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Posted in History & Literature

Witching Hour

European folklore state that supernatural and paranormal events, such as ghost sightings, tend to occur around the hour between 3am and 4am in the morning. It was believed that if you wake in the middle of the night around 3am, it was because you were visited by the devil. Women were even persecuted as witches if they were found outside during this ungodly hour.

There are many theories behind why the so-called Witching Hour became so infamous. Many involve religious notes, such as the fact that the Bible states that Jesus died at 3pm, therefore the inverse of the time is considered evil. Some say that the devil plays mockery to the Holy Trinity by using the number “3” as part of its acts of desecration. It is also a time when there are no prayers in the canonical hours, therefore evil spirits supposedly run rampant unchecked.

Scientifically speaking, when we wake in the middle of night then fall back asleep, we are more likely to enter a hypnagogic state – the state immediately before you fall asleep where your subconscious mind starts to take over. This can lead to sleep paralysis, which is commonly associated with horrific hallucinations, such as visions of monsters and ghouls. You may even experience a lucid dream, where you are aware within a dream, so you can have vivid memories of imaginary scenes. This may explain why people have such vivid memories of supernatural experiences.

3am is roughly the time of night when melatonin levels are highest, as it is normally when the body is in deep sleep. If you happen to be awake at this time, you may feel exhausted to the point of feeling delirious, as anyone who has done an all-nighter or a night shift could tell you.

From a historical point of view, before the advent of electric lights, it was common to go to bed early in the evening, wake in the night for an hour or two, then go back to sleep until the morning. This hour was used for prayers, writing down creative ideas, interpreting dreams, and of course, sex. Maybe this was also the hour when some people would be out and about for unlawful deeds, such as burglary. These sneaky burglars may have been misinterpreted as ghosts by anyone awake at the same time.

Whether you are superstitious or not, the Witching Hour is an interesting time as you know that everyone around you are asleep. There is no one to talk to. At this edge of tomorrow, you are left alone in tranquil darkness with your thoughts, feelings and worries.

Perhaps the things that go bump in the night during the Witching Hour are not eldritch horrors, but your own fears and anxieties rearing their ugly heads.

(Image source: http://explosm.net/comics/4086/)

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Anxiety

The human brain is one of the most sophisticated computers ever developed. It is so powerful that it can simulate all kinds of imaginative scenarios, allowing us to predict and plan for the future. Unfortunately for us, it is a double-edged sword that brings with it the curse of anxiety.

Anxiety is different to fear in that fear is a response to a specific present danger, such as a bear, whereas anxiety is usually a more vague concern for the future. Because our brain can imagine many unpleasant possible outcomes, we become fearful of what may come. This might be because of a past trauma, such as being afraid of abandonment, or because we do not know enough to safely predict what may happen, such as starting a new job.

Regardless of what the source may be, anxiety can be damaging as it prevents us from living life to the fullest. To protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, we develop strategies to ease our anxiety from a very young age. A common example is an object that gives reassurance, such as a teddy bear or a security blanket. Unfortunately, these are less socially acceptable to carry as an adult.

In some ways, almost everything we do could be seen as an attempt to escape anxiety. We strive for stable jobs so that we don’t have to worry about financial problems in the future. We seek pleasure and happiness, through healthy means such as a passionate hobby or unhealthy like alcohol, to distract us from anxiety. We look for a partner who we can connect with emotionally – someone who can hold us and tell us everything will be alright, even when all hope seems lost.

Anxiety is unavoidable, but it can be managed. There are many effective methods.

First, there is distraction. Hobbies and interests let us enter flow state, where our worries melt away because we are so focussed on the present and enjoying the moment that we do not need to worry about the future. Music gives us similar relief, as it helps us calm our nerves and drowns out the neurotic voice in our heads.

Second, there is the physiological approach. Anxiety raises your heart rate and breathing rate. You can trick your brain in to being less anxious by slowing your heart rate and breathing down. This can be done effectively through breathing exercises, meditation or even a simple, relaxing bath.

Third, there is mindfulness. Train yourself in becoming more aware of why you are feeling anxious. Anxiety usually stems from a single source then spreads like wildfire into its general form. Finding the source will make it easier to take the next step.

Lastly and most importantly, there is reassurance. This may be external, such as the kind words from a friend or a motivational poster, or internal, where you remind yourself that you will be okay. Remind yourself of all of the horrible experiences you have already survived in your life. Remind yourself that regardless of how stressful it was at the time, you are still (hopefully) okay. Remind yourself that you are an amazing, resilient, capable person who will get through this.

However, be aware that up to one-fifth of people suffer from anxiety disorders – a group of psychological disorders that cause persistent, distressing anxiety and dysfunctional behaviours developed to try reduce that anxiety. These disorders, such as phobias, panic disorder and OCD, are much more complicated to treat. They often require professional help and even medicines to treat. Even so, the above psychological treatments are used in conjunction and certainly can’t do much harm.

Anxiety is one of the greatest barriers to happiness. So in the wise words of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry, be happy”.

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Posted in Philosophy

Memento Mori

No matter how special you may be, there is one universal truth: we will all die someday. It may be in fifty years’ time, or it could be tomorrow. But nonetheless, we all have to eventually face our mortality. Memento mori, which is Latin for “remember you must die”, is the philosophy of being mindful of this fact.

It may sound morbid to ponder one’s own mortality day by day. However, the true meaning of memento mori is not to live anxiously fearing that death may be around every corner. Instead, it teaches us to not take life for granted, as it is finite and will end someday.

Many of us stress about the future so much that we cannot enjoy the present. We are ambitious: always aiming higher, to reach a higher position, to gain more wealth and to attain pleasure. But we forget that on our deathbed, none of these material things matter. What matters is whether you will be able to look back on your life and say that you truly lived with little regrets.

That said, it is okay to fear death. It is human nature to fear the unknown. Instead, we can harness our fear of death to live a fuller life. Fear is a poison that prevents us from seizing the day. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgement… But when we compare it to the weight of our inevitable demise, it is nothing. Although we are all afraid of dying, the vast majority of us are able to live without the fear of death interfering with our day-to-day lives. Therefore, unless death is an immediate consequence of your actions, nothing should make you afraid of trying.

Lastly, memento mori is a reminder of the temporary, impermanent nature of the human condition. Any moment could be our last, no matter how banal it may be. A brief phone call with your loved ones arguing about something petty may be the last conversation you have with them. It is a well-known fact that the human brain remembers the first and last things or events the most (primacy and recency). When you remember that death awaits all of us, every moment becomes a little bit more precious. We start paying more detail to how wonderful life is and how fortunate we are to have loved ones in our lives.

Remember you must die; you might as well make the most of life before then. Or as Ferris Bueller put it:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Life is a series of choices. As you only live once, you must decide what type of life you will lead. However, we are plagued by the uncertainty of the future. How will we know that we made the right choice? The career you decided on as you entered university could become obsolete in 20 years due to technological advances. You might end up regretting uprooting your life to move to a new city.

Perhaps the most difficult choice is the question of whether we are in love with the “right person”. Even if your partner is a perfectly nice, kind person, you may feel that something is missing. Some people call it chemistry, others call it connection, some even believe in fate and destiny. We are wired to try predict the future to protect ourselves. Therefore, it is natural to be concerned that we may end up with the “wrong person”: love’s equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Ideally, we want to be with someone who we can’t imagine not being with. Someone who you can enjoy the silence of a Sunday afternoon with comfortably. Someone who you can be silly with like children. Someone who you can open up to for support and understanding without fear of being judged. Essentially, someone who completes the equation of 1 + 1 = 3, rather than the typical 1 + 1 = 2.

If you find someone like that, all you have to do is focus all of your energy in making that relationship work, through communication, compromise, kindness and love. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find ourselves feeling that the person is 70% the person for us – maybe even 80% – but we are not sure if we are sacrificing the possibility of being with “the one”.

There are two possible solutions. If you have hope that this is the right person for you, you could give them a chance by giving it your best shot and see if things improve or not. Perhaps there are barriers easily solved through communication.

But if the seed of doubt in your heart grows, saying that this is not the right person for you, consider what you would do if you were unhappy with other aspects of your life. If you hated your job, you would train in a different discipline. If you hate the new city you moved to, you can always move to a different one.

Love is a choice. Whether you choose to stay and try to make it work, or choose to leave in search of a person who you feel a deeper connection with, it is up to you to make a choice.

Life is difficult, but at least we have the luxury of choice. Fear gives us tunnel vision – we can only envision one possible way our life will play out. By settling with the comfortable choice, you may be extinguishing the possibilities of a happier life.

It takes great courage to make a choice. But regardless of the outcome, at least you gave it an honest go; you took charge of your life and tried to live a happier life with less regrets.

Take a step back to examine your life – are you truly content with it? Or is fear blinding you from the leaps of faith that can make you happier?

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Posted in History & Literature

Sword Of Damocles

Damocles was a courtier to Dionysius II, king of Syracuse, Sicily. One day, he exclaimed how envious he was of the sheer power and authority the king wielded. To Damocles’ surprise, King Dionysius II responded by offering to switch places with him for a day to experience what it is like to be a king. Damocles jumped at this chance and agreed to it immediately.

So Damocles was changed into royal attire and was allowed to sit on an ornate throne. But as he sat on the throne, indulging in the magnificence he was surrounded by, he noticed that Dionysius had arranged for an addition to the throne room. He had arranged for a large sword to be hung above the throne, suspended on a single hair of a horse’s tail. The sword loomed over Damocles’ head, threatening to drop and kill him in an instant at any given moment.

The constant threat of death was too much for Damocles and he quickly begged the king for mercy to leave the throne. He finally understood that with great power, comes great danger around every corner. It was impossible for Damocles to enjoy the luxurious life of a king with a sword above his head.

The allegorical sword may not just be the threat of death. Many of us voluntarily hang a sword above our heads: anxiety for the future, paranoia that something will go wrong and of course, existential dread. How can we possibly be happy with a sword dangling above us? Happiness cannot blossom from a soul drenched in fear.

Look above you: what kind of sword hangs above your head? What is preventing you from being happy?

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Posted in Philosophy

The First Move

In the game of chess, every move counts. Each action you take can drastically change the way the game will play out from there on. By the second move, there are 72,084 possible games. By the third move, 9 million possible games exist. By the fourth, there are 318 trillion possible games. Essentially, after the first move, the game becomes nearly impossible to predict. There are more possible games on a chessboard than there are atoms in the universe. What spawns all of these possibilities is the first move.

This makes the first move all that terrifying. One mistake and you have destroyed countless possibilities where you are victorious. On the last few moves of the game, the results are much more predictable as the possibilities have been weeded out. Therefore, you can have more confidence in your moves. But the first move is as far as you can get from the end move, with an infinite sea of possibilities between you and the other side.

The corollary to this is that if you do make a mistake on your first move, then you have infinite ways to fix that mistake. So don’t be afraid of taking the first move – simply relax and play the game.

(inspiration/paraphrased from Harold Finch, Person of Interest)

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