Posted in Philosophy

## Zero-Sum Game

Game theory is the study of using mathematical models to understand how rational decision-makers would strategically act in a given environment. One concept from game theory is that of the zero-sum game, where there is a finite amount of utility shared between players, meaning that if one person gains something, another must lose something to balance it out.

A classic example is a game of competitive sports, where there can be only one winner. For you to win, someone else must lose. A zero-sum game can have as few as two players (such as a singles tennis match) or many players (such as a game of poker, where every dollar you win is a dollar taken away from the other players).

From a young age, we see many examples of zero-sum games. We play sports and board games where there is a clear winner. We are marked on curve and compared to our classmates in exams. We compete for jobs and romantic partners. Competitiveness is driven into us and is sold as a survival skill.

This leads us to be prone to zero-sum thinking which can lead to many biases. Some studies show students acting more competitively and less inclined to help their peers if they were graded on a curve (e.g. percentiles), rather than grade categories (e.g. A, B, C). We think that if someone is a jack of all trades, they are masters of none, because surely no one can “have it all”. Many people oppose immigration because they believe that immigrants will take the finite number of jobs and houses. Some people negotiate aggressively in a deal, thinking that “your loss is my gain”. In severe cases, people may even sabotage others to increase their gains.

However, life is not always a zero-sum game. Game theory also describes non-zero-sum games, where the net balance of utility between all participants can be higher (or lesser) than zero. Simply put, in a non-zero-sum game, there can be more than one winner and sometimes, everyone can be a winner.

The best example of this is the mutual benefit born from cooperation. Zero-sum thinking may dictate that you must conquer your neighbouring tribe because they are your competition, but throughout history, cooperation, peace and harmony have prevailed as the winning strategy, because it results in greater net gain.

Happiness is also a non-zero-sum game, where just because someone else is happy, it does not take away from your happiness. But for some reason, some people cannot stand to watch others happy, or feel they must be happier than those around them. These people constantly try to “one-up” others, not recognising others’ happiness, or even sabotaging others and making them feel bad because they can’t stand to see other people be happier than them. This is an extremely toxic, unnecessary behaviour, that should be unacceptable in any kind of relationship, particularly between friends or family.

The far healthier behaviour is to be happy for others’ happiness, regardless of your life situation. This is why compassion is one of the keys for happiness. Realising that we can all find our own joy and contentness and help each other find happiness is a key step in being sustainably happy.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in Life & Happiness

## Friendship

We have very little choice about who we have as family. But friends are a different story: we choose who we want to spend time with and call our friends. The beauty of friendship is that it is an active choice. By calling someone our friend, we are telling them that we appreciate their presence in our lives, that we enjoy spending time with them, that we care about their well-being and wish them good fortunes in the future.

That said – as emphasised above – friendship is a choice. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. If a friendship becomes toxic, burdensome and a major source of stress more than what you gain from it, you have the power to leave the friendship (or vice versa).

We know from psychological studies that one of the most common starts to friendship is the propinquity effect, where we are more likely to like and befriend people who we are regularly exposed to and in close proximity to. This explains why when we are young, our friend group seems to be based around people from school, university and work.

But as we grow older, we learn that proximity and history alone is not enough to maintain friendship. In adulthood, we constantly face pressures such as work demands, romantic relationships and various life stressors. We have so little free time to invest in those around us, so why would we want to use up time to maintain relationships that do not add anything to our lives, let alone those who take from us or bring us down?

Like with any other kind of relationship, friendships should be evaluated and re-evaluated over time. Life is too short to spend time on those who do not earn or deserve our trust, loyalty and love. Life is also too short to take for granted the amazing people around us and to not celebrate the beautiful relationships that build us up and support us in times of need.

When we find that a friendship is becoming toxic, leaving us with a bitter taste in our mouth at the end of each encounter and making us wonder if they add anything to our lives, then we should seriously consider addressing it with communication or distancing our hearts from them.

Similarly, when we find friends who share our values, with whom we can share emotional insights and vulnerable insecurities with just as easily as sharing silly and fun times, or ask for help when we need it and from whom we can learn from and give back to in a meaningful way, then we must acknowledge how rare and precious those connections are.

These are the connections we should be investing our precious little personal time towards, because they are the friendships that amount to something greater, where the sum is greater than the parts, where 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in History & Literature

## Gordian Knot

Legend tells the tale of the Gordian Knot, a knot tied so tightly that it seemed impossible to undo it. The Phrygians’ oracle even prophesised that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of all of Asia Minor. Many tried to loosen the knot, but the knot remained secure for years.

In fourth century BC, Alexander the Great came to the city amidst his business of conquering everything around him. Of course, he could not pass the challenge by, so he too attempted to unravel the Gordian Knot. But alas, not even the great Alexander could untie it.

He then took a step back and thought to himself that it did not matter how the knot was undone. So he took his sword and sliced the knot in half, much to the shock of his audience. As the oracle prophesised, Alexander ruled the great Macedon Empire, stretching its border past Asia Minor, almost reaching present day China and India.

The story of the Gordian Knot teaches the importance of thinking outside the box. We can tackle a problem again and again without fruition if we try only one method. Just when you start to feel frustrated, take a step back and consider a different approach.

Another lesson is the value of combining two different fields. Instead of using typical knot-untying skills, Alexander chose to use military skills. Many innovations have arisen from borrowing skills and ideas from different fields – known as cross industry innovation.

For example, instead of complicated controller designs for drones, the US Army found using an Xbox 360 controller was far more effective. Computer models simulate the way ants find optimum paths to solve complex mathematical problems such as the Travelling Salesman Problem. The combination of waffles and shoes resulted in the creation of waffle rubber soles to increase traction in running shoes. Many engineering feats borrow ideas from nature, such as the aerodynamic design of planes and structural strength of arches and curves as observed by Gaudi.

This is the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in Life & Happiness

## For Versus With

What do you look for in a potential partner? Everyone has their own set of criteria and features that they find attractive. But a common point of the things that people look for in a potential mate is that they subconsciously ask the question: “What can this person do for me?”.

Let’s take some examples.

• “Someone with a good, stable job” – Someone that offers me financial stability.
• “A tall, dark, handsome guy” or “A beautiful, sexy, blonde girl” – Someone who is aesthetically pleasing for me to look at.
• “Someone who can cook well” – Someone who can feed me.
• “Someone that makes me laugh” – Someone who will make me happier.
• “Someone who makes me feel loved” – Someone who will make me feel special.

As individuals, we are allowed to make some selfish decisions when it comes to important life choices. But a relationship involves two individuals, meaning that both parties should be considered. There is some room for compromise, but the more selfish and individualistic people act, the more resentment that builds up in the relationship.

Furthermore, the question of what your significant other can do for you builds expectations. Human beings never act predictably, so this is sure to lead to disappointment. As you get used to each other’s company and your partner starts doing less “for” you, such as cooking you dinner every day or giving you gifts, you will feel as if they don’t love you anymore. Eventually, you grow apart from each other and the unrealistic expectations threaten the relationship.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is: “What can I do together with this person?”.

For example, what hobbies or passions do you share and can you do it together? Do they spend their days off in a similar way to you? Are your values and beliefs aligned in a way that you could share a life together without too much clashing? How are they different from you, what can you learn from them and how can you help them?

The advantage of this question over the first one is that it respects that a relationship is something shared by two equals. Instead of asking what value your partner will add to your life, it instead asks how you can add to each other’s lives to produce something greater.

1 + 1 = 3

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)

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?

Posted in Life & Happiness

## Kintsugi

There is a type of Japanese pottery art called kintsugi (きんつぎ), which translates to “golden joinery”. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery by filling the cracks with lacquer (treated tree sap commonly used to decorate pottery) that has been dusted with gold or silver powder. This gives the pottery a distinct look as the pattern of cracks are always random and unique.

Kintsugi is not only an art, but a philosophy. When something is broken, the common practice is to repair it in a way to hide the fact that it was ever damaged. Kintsugi takes the opposite approach by directly incorporating the break into the identity of the pottery.

It follows the Buddhist principle of impermanence and imperfection – understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Instead of hiding the damage or throwing the pieces out altogether, kintsugi can produce something greater out of the pieces than its original form.

Nothing is constant in life. We are not perfect and cannot remain unflawed. Life constantly knocks us down, leaving us with scars. But when you get back up, you have two choices: to pretend you were never hurt and hide the pieces away, or to embrace that you are flawed but choose to show to the world how you mended yourself to become even more beautiful.

The lesson here is that it is okay to be imperfect or broken. What matters is what you can do with the pieces.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in History & Literature

## Your Other Half

According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. The humans at this time were complete. They felt as if nothing could harm them and that they could conquer the gods. Zeus feared the humans’ power and split them into two separate parts to create humans as they are now. Two arms, two legs, one face, half a soul.

Thanks to Zeus, all human beings are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in search of their other halves. When one of them meets the other half – that is, the other half of his or her original self – the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. There is an unspoken understanding of one another – an unexplainable longing and attraction for each other. One will not be out of the other’s sight, even for a moment. The two continuously yearn for each other and strive to be together until they are finally united.

Love is simply the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. It tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.

1 + 1 = 3

(inspiration from The Symposium by Plato)

(and here’s a sweet illustration of the myth http://imgur.com/gallery/H0f1u)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

## The Importance Of Hugging

American psychologist Harry Harlow was interested in the debate surrounding the role of the mother. Some scholars argued that a mother’s role is to provide food for the baby, while others argued for the importance of the mother’s tender loving care for the baby. To investigate this, Harlow created two “mothers” for a group of infant rhesus macaques (species of monkeys). One mother was made of wire and wood and the other made of soft cloth to simulate the physical contact of an actual mother monkey. The twist was that only the wire mother provided milk for the infant. Despite this, an overwhelming number of infant macaques chose the cloth mother over the wire mother, choosing physical contact over nourishment. It was found that when given the two choices, the infants would visit the wire mother only for a feed, then would cling to the cloth mother the rest of the time. Harlow concluded that the mother’s role is not only to feed the young, but to provide them with “contact comfort” through physical contact.

Hugging is a form of physical contact found in almost every culture across the globe. It non-verbally communicates to the other person that you love and care for them and that you are compassionate for their happiness. It can provide the warmth, comfort, support and security the other person may need at the end of a tough day.

The act of hugging induces a massive release of oxytocin into your system, giving you the sensation of happiness and connection. It reduces your blood pressure and dissolves anxiety, making you feel more at peace. The behaviour of hugging is seen in a mother holding her child, a child cuddling a teddy bear, a couple communicating their affection, or two friends sharing a moment of happiness.

When two people hug, they become something more than a simple group of two people. In that moment of a hug, the two people enter a transcendent zone filled with only love and happiness, where they are protected from the sorrows and evils of the world. It is the physical form of human connection. In other words, a hug is the closest thing to the physical manifestation of true happiness.

1 + 1 = 3

Posted in Philosophy

## Lego House

Imagine that you built a house out of Lego blocks. Now break apart the house until it is reduced to individual blocks. Where is the house now? You could say that the house is still there, except now that it is in the form of a small pile of blocks. On the other hand, you could argue that the “house” itself no longer exists – only its components. The pile of blocks does not have a roof or walls or a living room. It is not a safe, homely place Mr. Lego can return to after work to relax in. However, it has the potential to be a house again. All you need to do is arrange it in a certain way to make it a beautiful home for a nice little Lego family.

What makes the Lego house a house is the specific arrangement of the bricks in an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and practical way – crafted by a creative mind and a set of hands. Through these hands, the blocks can be crafted into a house, a car or even a space station. But without them, they will forever remain a pile of unused blocks stored away in some dark container.

Now look deep inside you and ask this question: what have you made with the Lego pieces that make up your identity? How have you pieced together your strengths, your skills, your experiences and your dreams? We are all unique in the sense that we are born with certain virtues and talents, while gaining various experiences and skills through the chaos that is life. But all of these are just Lego pieces. What kind of masterpiece these pieces will be a component of is up to you to decide, design and build.

Just like Lego, if you don’t are not truly happy with what you see inside you, feel free to tweak it, add to it or even disassemble it and rearrange it into a different final product. Try emphasising your language skills, or chasing after a lost dream. Draw from different experiences and play around with your various strengths. This is not to change who you are completely; no matter how many times you break up and reassemble them, you still have the same components. All you have to do is come up with a new design, build it and judge the product. Hopefully, you will find the right arrangement of pieces that result in a product greater than the sum of its components.

So go on, get building. 1 + 1 = 3.

(Artwork by Nathan Sawaya)

Posted in Philosophy

## Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.