A theory on how the brain processes and remembers time is that it counts time by the number of experiences. For example, if you attend a party and meet many new people and have an exciting, fun time, then your brain will remember that day as feeling longer and with much more detail. In contrast, a normal, boring work day may not even register as a memory, because there is nothing new to remember.
This sounds obvious, but the theory has relevant implications. Look back on your past week and try to remember what you did. Do you remember the weather three days ago, what you talked about with your friend over coffee five days ago, or what song was playing while you were doing paperwork?
It is not uncommon for our brain to go into autopilot and forget menial, daily routines. In other words, the more standardised and automated your daily life is, your brain will remember those times as “less time”. Ergo, the life you look back on is shorter than what it could have been if you stop having new experiences. Is that not such a waste?
Compare this to when you travel or start a new relationship. You are exposed to so many new stimuli and experiences that your brain light ups and frantically records every detail (the heightened emotions play a role also). This is why we can remember the scent of our partner, the conversations we had with a stranger we met in a French bookshop, and what movie was playing in the background when you had your first kiss. These are moments that you can remember in better detail than you can remember entire years.
The bottom line is that a boring life a short life. A way to make the most of the short time we have in life would be to continue having new experiences as we grow old. Travel the world, meet new people, try things you normally wouldn’t, fall in love and push your horizons.
Otherwise, you may end up on your deathbed looking back on your life, regretting that your highlight reel is much shorter than you expected.
One of the keys to happiness is living in the present: being mindful of what is happening now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. That said, the present is not always happy. Sometimes, the now is excruciatingly painful, whether it be physically or emotionally. Ironically in those situations, it feels impossible to escape the present and it feels like the suffering will be endless.
But to quote author John Green from his novel Turtles All The Way Down:
“Your now is not your forever.”
No matter how bleak the outcome may look, there will almost always be a glimmer of hope. Wounds heal with time, we can adapt to harsh environments and we can grow strong to overcome our challenges. Things can change for the better if given the chance and with effort, no matter how impossible it may seem at the time.
So the next time you feel helplessly stuck in the now, remind yourself that this too shall pass. It will not solve your immediate problems, but it may give you a touch of strength to help endure the hard times, even if it is one day at a time.
Abraham Maslow was a Jewish psychologist who tried to answer a question that plagues every person at some stage: what is the meaning of life? To answer this question, he published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, where he introduced the now well-known Hierarchy of Needs. The basic premise to Maslow’s theory is as follows.
We have different needs in life. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorises these needs, then places them in a pyramid-shaped model in order of priority. Maslow believed that some needs are more fundamental than others. For example, you can’t worry about being single if you are starving to death. Therefore, to be motivated to work on one category, you must first satiate your need for the category below that. Maslow organised the categories in the following order.
Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have physiological needs. This is self-explanatory, as you need to be biologically alive to even worry about the other needs. This includes food, water, warmth and rest.
The next level addresses safety. If you do not feel safe, then you would be too preoccupied by the sense of danger to consider higher needs. Therefore, you need physical shelter, resources and a general sense of security, whether it be personal safety, financial, health or emotional security.
Safety and physiological needs are considered “basic needs“. The next two are considered “psychological or spiritual needs“.
Social belonging refers to the human need for connection. Loneliness and disconnect can be crippling to the point that you cannot enjoy the other aspects of your life, even if you have your basic needs met. This includes romantic and intimate relationships, family and friends, and communities.
Once we fulfil our need for external connections, we can start looking within ourselves, addressing our need for self-esteem and self-respect. We cannot lead fulfilling lives if we doubt and are unkind to ourselves.
Lastly, we have the apex of the pyramid that Maslow thought all people should ultimately aspire to: self-actualisation. Essentially, this means being the best version of yourself that you can be, unlocking your full potential and making the most out of your life.
The interesting part to this last step is that you define what the best version of yourself is. Perhaps you wish to be a great parent or a teacher. Perhaps you want to be a high-achieving professional or to create something others can enjoy. Perhaps you wish to be content and happy.
The Hierarchy of Needs suggests that to even think about achieving self-actualisation, we must fulfil the more basic needs first. This means that in some cases, what gets in the way of our self-actualisation may not be us, but our environment. For example, child abuse and domestic violence greatly affect a person’s sense of safety and causes significant trauma. Being socially isolated or having low self-esteem are all barriers to letting you be you. So how do we escape this trap?
First, evaluate whether you truly don’t have the basic needs. We often misjudge what we actually need in life, choosing to focus on things that won’t bring us joy, such as gaining more material wealth than needed, or social attention. On retrospect, we may find that we already have everything we need to ascend to the next level.
Second, if something is in your control, take action to remove the obstacle. This might involve changing your perspective, modifying how you do things or communicating with another person why things are not working. If you are in a toxic relationship or a job that you loathe, you may have to leave them to let yourself progress. We have much greater power over our lives than we think, but our fears, doubts and social pressures convince us otherwise.
Third, remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the one-truth. There have been countless studies showing that Maslow’s suggested order of priorities do not apply in the real world, with many people opting to prioritise higher needs above basic needs, such as willingly staying hungry in order to pursue creative outlets, or giving up a secure, stable life in the pursuit of love. It may be difficult, but we can sometimes transcend the challenges of our environment through determination.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been controversial in the field of psychology ever since its publication, but it is a good reminder that to achieve a happy, fulfilling life, we need to take stock of what we truly need in life and balance them with each other.
Have you ever listened to a song or watched a scene in a movie where you suddenly feel a chill run through your body, giving you goosebumps? This is a well-recognised phenomenon called frisson (“shiver” in French). Frisson is colloquially known as “the chills”, thrills, goosebumps, or “skin orgasm”.
Frisson is described as a rapid, intense wave of pleasure, accompanied by tingling and chills spreading through your skin. It is typically triggered by an unexpected, sudden change in the dynamic of a musical piece. This may include a change in loudness, pitch, melody, unexpected harmonies or an appoggiatura in the melody, where there is an accentuated note that does not fit in the chord, creating a clash. If a person is emotionally connected to the piece, such as having a fond memory associated with it, the intensity of frisson is heightened.
Scientifically speaking, frisson is the combination of the reward centre in your brain releasing dopamine, plus the activation of your autonomic nervous system. This results in pupil dilation, piloerection (goosebumps) and increased electrical conductance of your skin, similar to when you have an adrenaline rush.
It is likely the result of your brain being confused by an unexpected change from the predicted progression of the music, causing a strange blend between the pleasure of surprise and fear of the uncertain.
Not everyone experiences frisson. Studies show that around 55-85% of the population have felt frisson before. One study showed that those with the personality trait “openness to experience” have a higher chance of feeling frisson. These people tend to have more intense emotions, active imaginations and are intellectually curious. One possible explanation for why these characteristics allow for frisson is that you need to be in tune with your emotions and the present to appreciate the subtle but sudden dynamic changes that result in frisson.
The potential joy of feeling frisson is yet another benefit of being mindful of your emotions and the present.
(Here’s a video of something that gives me frisson every time I watch it.)
When you buy clothes, do you buy clothes that fit you, or do you make your body fit the clothes? Of course, you find clothing that fits you well, or better yet, get it fitted to your size. This seems like such a basic principle when it comes to clothing, yet we seem to do the opposite when it comes to life.
How often do we try to fit ourselves into a life of the wrong size? We are constantly under pressure from our friends, family and society that we should be living life a certain way. We feel like we need to buy a house, get married, have children, find a stable, well-paying, respectable job…
We keep comparing ourselves to the lives of others and feel anxious that we are a step behind. Instead of searching for the kind of life that we want to live and things that make us happy, we have a tendency to force ourselves to fit an image of what other see as the ideal life.
But you’d never purposely buy clothes that are too tight or loose on you, or have a completely clashing colour scheme with your skin tone. So why would you try to do the same for something as important as your life? Instead of trying to force yourself into wearing a life that is the wrong fit for you, think deeply about what you want and tailor your dreams and future to fit you.
Don’t let reality, society and the people around you dictate your style. As long as you won’t have regrets on your deathbed about the choices you made, or hurt others or yourself, live life the way you want. Because you’re the only person that knows what you really want out of life.
Every culture has holidays – a day that celebrates an aspect of the people’s history, faith, traditions or just a certain time of the year. Holidays are days set aside for having fun and sharing a good time with your friends, family and community.
The degree of festivity ranges from low-key days such as a city’s anniversary day, to important annual celebrations that have an entire month of build-up such as Christmas, or even absurd ones such as International Talk Like A Pirate Day. But the bottom line is, holidays bring joy and happiness for many people around the world.
Throughout history, holidays have been a great way to boost morale in people. Even though it is just another day of the Earth circling the Sun, specific days excite us and make us giddy, letting us forget the dreariness and pains of life. Take for example the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers called a truce on Christmas Day despite World War I raging on, so that they could all celebrate the day by sharing food and gifts, while playing some spirited games of soccer.
The holidays offer a great excuse for us to be happy. There are plenty of reasons in life why we aren’t happy. Work can be stressful and boring. Relationships are full of dramas and misunderstandings. There are days where it just feels like the universe is hating on you. Sometimes, life just sucks.
But holidays bring a perfect remedy for misery: connection. Whatever the holiday may be, there are many other people celebrating the same holiday as you. This means that on that specific day, everyone feels more connected to each other as they celebrate together. From singing carols together, to looking forward to the New Year and sharing our reflections and resolutions, we are bonded as we live in the moment. Through these connections and feeling present, we feel happier.
Perhaps that is the true reason we have holidays. In a world so full of sadness and madness, isn’t it nice to have any excuse to be happy? Even if it’s just for a day, we are reminded that happiness exists, in the form of our memories and nostalgia of the past, our excitement for the future, and in the present moment that we share with each other.
One of the hardest life skills to master in adult life is time management. We are constantly bombarded with tasks that demand to be completed urgently, atop our already massive piles of responsibilities. We are expected to juggle our career, relationships, health and happiness, without ever dropping the ball.
Technology has not helped this situation. Although we have tools that allow us to work more efficiently, such as word processors and the internet, they create even more work and there is a greater sense of urgency due to messages and emails being received instantly.
Sometimes, adult life just feels as if we are forever stumbling forward – barely clearing our urgent tasks in time for the next lot of tasks, while never being able to stop and consider what is truly important to us. So how can we balance that which is urgent with what is important?
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.
This inspired the time management tool called the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as an Eisenhower Box or the Eisenhower Method.
To use the Eisenhower method, we take all of our problems that we can conceivably fix (as there is no point worrying about issues beyond our control) and put them into one of the following four boxes:
If something is important and urgent, such as a fire in your kitchen or a loved one needs immediate help, then you should do it straight away.
If something is not important but urgent, such as a work email that is not an emergency, or household chores or paying the bill, then you should delegate it. This does not necessarily mean to another person – you could delegate by making the process easier for future you by soaking the dishes, or automating your bill payments.
If something is not important and not urgent, you should not even pay attention to it and just drop it. A good example would be checking social media for the tenth time or marathoning a TV show.
If something is important but not urgent, such as catching up with your friends or following your hobbies and passions, then you need to set aside uninterruptible time for it. For example, you could set aside a “life admin” time once a week where you reach out to your friends to organise a catch up, or set a “deadline” for yourself, such as giving yourself a month to improve and achieve a certain goal in your hobby.
The Eisenhower Matrix visually highlights the issues in your life that you need to deal with right now, while also reminding you that you need to take action and make time for the important things in life. It allows you to be more efficient with your available time by prioritising tasks and showing you that the unimportant things can wait, or be eliminated.
It also shows us that even though urgency is a useful tool to drive us to complete tasks in time, it can easily control our lives and overwhelm us. Instead, we should be responsive by identifying the important tasks and process them in a calm and rational manner.
Lastly, remember that life is not about being the most efficient, productive being – that would make you a machine. The Eisenhower Matrix accounts for the things that are not considered “productive”, but still add to our life, such as the things we enjoy doing and the people we enjoy connecting with.
You deserve to be happy and the only person who can make that happen is you. So if something or someone makes you happy and gives your life meaning, while not hurting yourself or others, then by all means you should make time for it.
In the end, the pursuit of happiness is without a doubt a productive activity.
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.”
What is the meaning of life? This has been one of the greatest philosophical questions of all time, pondered by almost every human being at some stage in their life. In the early days, the meaning of life was simple: survive. We had to use all of our resources to feed and warm ourselves, while defending ourselves from the various creative ways nature can kill us. But as civilisation developed and we had more luxury of food, time and thought, we began to wonder more and more: why are we here?
When we are babies, the world revolves around us. Parents exist to feed us, what we see are the extension of our minds and what we cannot see does not exist. This belief carries on to adulthood somewhat. We see this in old beliefs that the universe revolves around the Earth, and religions telling us that everything on Earth was created for mankind. The concepts of destiny and divine will provided us with purpose in this world. We felt important and valuable because we felt that we were part of something greater and our lives mattered.
But as science developed, we came to learn that the universe does not exist for us. Things don’t happen because they are scripted as an intricate chain reaction as part of a grand story; they just happen thanks to random chance. Biology teaches us that life is a product of a series of accidents and mistakes, to create better adapted beings. Statistics teaches us that we are not special; just a point on a bell curve. Psychology teaches us how flawed we are in interpreting cause and effect, thanks to our brain’s tendency of seeking patterns resulting in cognitive biases.
In short, there is a real possibility that there is no meaning of life. We are simply happy accidents amidst the course of the universe’s timeline.
Yet we cling to the idea that we need to find our purpose. We cannot bear the thought that we have no celestial guidance as we navigate through life, or that our choices and actions play no role in how the world spins on. We fear that without purpose, we are worthless. The thought that life is meaningless invokes existential dread and we wonder what’s the point of doing anything in life.
However, consider the opposite. If we are not bound by fate or some calling, then our lives are truly ours. We are not chess pieces following every instruction of an unseen player. Instead, we have the freedom to make our own choices and write the story of our lives however we want. This is no doubt scary, because we have little guidance along this journey. Nevertheless, it is our story, our choices, our life.
Instead of lamenting that we serve no purpose, we can create our own purpose. We won the lottery and got to experience consciousness. How will you use that gift? Will you waste it away by doing nothing, or will you make the most of it by enjoying it? If we don’t have some mission to accomplish, then we can use our time to enjoy our passions (given that it does not harm anyone) and challenge ourselves to be better people.
The pursuit of happiness, to be the best version of yourself, to help others lead a happier life… However you want to make use of your life, as long as you are content with it and accept that it is your choice, that is the true meaning of life. Hopefully, it is something positive and constructive, rather than something harmful or something that you would regret in your final moments.
You are not worthless because you have no purpose. You are priceless because there are no expectations or plans or predestined path for you. Life is like a blank canvas with little restriction on what you can do with it. You might as well get the most value from it by painting the best damn picture you can – something for you to smile upon and be proud of, while inspiring others to paint their own beautiful pictures.
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.