Posted in History & Literature

The Egg

Short story written by Andy Weir

You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

Posted in Life & Happiness

New Experiences

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.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Work-Life Balance

An important part of most of our lives as an adult is work.
We need money to pay for food and housing, but also to fulfil our wants and realising our dreams, such as indulging in gourmet foods and beautiful clothes, going on trips, funding a hobby or buying a nice house.
Careers can be an important source of personal pride and sense of purpose, challenging us and stimulating our growth.
Workplaces are also a valuable source of social interaction, as we meet people we might not have met in other settings.

But as important as work is, it is perhaps overemphasised in our society.
Money is great, but above a certain line, there is a diminishing return on how much happiness it brings, because it promotes greed rather than contentness.
Our pride in our job may lead to us making it too large a part of our identity, resulting in a crisis when we feel we are not good at our jobs or cannot keep working anymore.
Our colleagues and superiors may be the greatest source of stress and annoyance, leading to burnout at work.

Overall, work can be a source of great stress and misery in our lives.

Most importantly, life is a zero-sum game. If we devote time to work, it takes away time from other aspects of our life. We often overlook the “little things“, such as spending time with our loved ones, enjoying hobbies and interests, and taking care of our health.

But things such as relationships and health are what we do need to devote time to, as they can be irreparably damaged without proper care and maintenance.

So if you don’t have time for these “little things”, ask yourself what you are making time for. Is what you get out of your job really worth it all? Is it worth the stress and sacrificing the “little things” for?

Sometimes, it is necessary to work hard and make sacrifices to earn enough for survival or to achieve a certain goals. But more often than not, we are failing to be content and losing what we already have in the pursuit of something bigger (and out of reach).

To prevent work from taking over your life, we must balance it by making time for various outlets.

An effective way to balance the stress and burnout from work is by having a creative outlet. Having a hobby such as playing an instrument, writing (e.g. creative writing, journaling, blogging), drawing or some other activity that challenges you to grow outside of work helps you to feel engaged and active. Life is so much more interesting with a passion, especially when work fails to provide it.

Improving physical health through exercise gives you more energy so you can do more with your free time than just lie down and watch TV after work.
Meditation gives us tools to be resilient against various forms of stress by teaching us to let go of things we cannot change and to be mindful of the good things in life.

The last important outlet is connection. Friends and family provide love, support and compassion when we are going through tough times. Even being able to co-miserate about a mild annoyance over a coffee with a colleague can make work more bearable. Sharing a laughter and enjoying moments of simple pleasure together with a loved one helps remind us of how important happiness and contentness is in life.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is too deep of a topic to cover in one article, especially because it varies from person to person.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking yourself whether you are truly happy with the balance between work and your personal life, and how you may live a happier life by restoring said balance.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

No Regrets

You will never regret being kind.
You will never regret having hope.
You will never regret prioritising happiness.
You will never regret being yourself.
You will never regret taking chances.

People think regret is born out of bad choices, but more often than not, regret is the result of not making a choice. Taking a chance may come with consequences, but that is a risk we have to take. Because if you’re too afraid of consequences or being hurt and refuse to take action on the important things, life will pass you by in the blink of an eye and you might miss it. On your deathbed, it won’t be the decisions you made that you regret, but the bites you didn’t take.

Happiness is an active process, not something that will come to you passively. So choose to be kind and choose to be hopeful. Choose to laugh and choose to love. Choose to be the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Identity Crisis

A common set of questions we get asked are: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “What do you do?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. These questions are essentially asking how we identify ourselves and what kind of identity do we want in the future.

If you were asked “who are you?”, how would you reply? Many people would identify with their occupation, such as a doctor, musician, software developer or actor. Some people define themselves by their relationship, such as a mother of two. Another common source of identity is your accomplishments and success, such as celebrities, a popular author or world-class athlete.

But what happens when our identity is shaken? For example, what if you identify as an author who published an immensely popular, critically-acclaimed book, but you can’t write a book good enough to follow it up? What if you are the best swordsman in the realm and you lose your hand? What if you identify as a mother, but your children are now grown up and have left you in an empty nest?

The problem with hinging our identity on one thing is that it makes us vulnerable to having an identity crisis when that thing will inevitably change.

Life has a tendency to be unpredictable and can easily throw the rug from under our feet at any minute. If this happens and all of our proverbial eggs are in one basket, it leads to a devastating blow to our sense of self-worth. Focussing our identity around one factor of our life would be as silly as investing all of our money in a single stock.

To solve this issue, we should treat our identity like any other investment: diversify your identity.

You are not “just a(n)” anything, because you are so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. You can be a lawyer who also makes pottery and is a loving wife. You can be a mother who is also an amateur pianist that cooks well and is passionate about photography. You can be a successful internet celebrity who also happens to be an avid member of a board game community and loves playing tennis with his flatmates in the weekends.

The trick here is to find different sources for your identity. Identify yourself not only with your job and success, but also with your relationships and passions. Be mindful that most things in life are transient, whether by choice or not. That way, when we are forced to give up a part of who we are, our identity will still hold its shape so that it can heal with time, to form an even more complex and interesting identity.

(Image source: https://thegorgonist.tumblr.com/image/169169068294)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Your Now Is Not Your Forever

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.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

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.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Bespoke

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.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Mistake

Generally speaking, we live our lives trying to avoid making a mistake. Perhaps it is because we were brought up to do everything as perfectly as possible. Perhaps it is because we fear the consequences. Perhaps it is because we refuse to accept that we are imperfect beings.

Regardless of the reason, we have a constant nagging voice in the back of our minds asking us: “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it’s all a big mistake?”.

This mentality affects our work, our financial decisions, our sense of adventure and even our relationships. Sometimes, we even go as far as not taking any action in fear of screwing it up. The fear of mistakes makes us take less risks and leaps of faith, hindering our ability to live a full life.

But to quote a great captain, Jean-Luc Picard:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

Life is full of mistakes. No matter how hard we try to minimise risk, life will always find a way to trip you up. Because we are not a time-travelling supercomputer that can see and predict every variable, it is impossible to make no mistakes. Ergo, it is okay to make mistakes, because to err is to human.

In fact, mistakes are not always bad.

A “mistake” such as the singer’s voice cracking on a live performance may make it a more special performance, because it is a sign the singer poured all of their emotion and energy into the song, rather than playing it safe to avoid a mistake.

Columbus discovered the Caribbean because he mistakenly thought that he could reach Asia by sailing due west of Spain.

Everyone has a story of getting lost while travelling and stumbling onto an unforgettable experience that they could not have possibly planned for.

Sometimes, we will look back on our life and realise that what we thought was a mistake back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because each and every mistake we made led us to where we are now.

Lastly, we are all the products of billions of years of mistakes. Evolution is fundamentally based on the concept that genetic mistakes during cell division (mutations) allow for diversity of traits. Without mistakes, we wouldn’t even be here.

Of course, some mistakes carry irreversible, dire consequences, such as drinking and driving, or falling asleep while a nuclear reactor fails (Three Mile Island accident). But outside of these, most mistakes in life are something that you can learn something and move on from.

So don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake.

It’s okay to make mistakes.

We are only human.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Spirals

You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.