“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.
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.
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.
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.
It is the human condition to be our own worst enemies. Yes, life can get hard and it will throw various obstacles and challenges at us, creating all kinds of stress and distress. However, much of our anguish will come from the stories we tell ourselves.
We often think that we feel emotions as a reaction to a stimulus or a change in our environment. This makes us feel powerless and as if we are slaves to our emotions. In reality though, our emotions are usually reactions to our thoughts.
For example, when a relative or someone close to us dies, we feel sad. This may seem like an automatic response, but we first process the information with our rational mind and tell ourselves the story that we will miss them, or that we will never see them again. Our sadness is a reaction to the thought process rather than a direct result of the event.
In this case, the emotional reaction is highly appropriate. The problem is that it is extremely common for us to tell ourselves the wrong story.
A good example would be insecurities. If you ever notice yourself feeling inexplicably anxious, sad or angry, ask yourself the question: what am I telling myself?
You may find that the reason that you are angry every time your colleague talks to you is because you are telling yourself that they are lazy. You may be frustrated whenever a friend doesn’t reply back to your messages because you think they are avoiding you. You may feel sad whenever you look in the mirror because you tell yourself that you are not physically attractive enough. You may be telling yourself that your partner does not love you whenever they go quiet and withdrawn suddenly.
The importance of understanding this concept is that it lets you be more in control of your emotions and lets you diagnose the problems affecting your mental health. Once you know what story is causing the emotion, you can examine the story. When we run the story through a rational filter, we may find that our reaction was completely irrational.
The “lazy” co-worker may be going through a rough time making it difficult for them to work efficiently. Your friend may be busy at work, hence not able to reply. You may be objectively attractive and in good physical health, but your poor self-confidence may be creating a false story. It could be that withdrawing themselves is your partner’s normal coping mechanism when they are dealing with their own problem and it may have nothing to do with you.
This is also useful in a relationship setting, as you can ask your partner how your actions make them feel and what they are telling themselves in that situation to better break down what the true issue is. This lets you both resolve the issue in a more constructive, peaceful manner.
The bottom line is, to improve our mental health, we must examine and alter the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself the worst stories, it will become reality. So ask yourself: what kind of stories am I telling myself and how is it affecting my life? You may be surprised to see how different life can be when you get your stories straight.
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.
When we are with someone, our instinct is to engage in conversation. We feel an urge to interact as we feel that is the social norm. For some reason, it feels wrong or rude to do something individual in the company of others, such as reading a book, indulging a personal hobby, or even being alone with your thoughts.
That is not to say that social interactions are bad. Some of the happiest moments in life come from a sense of connection through deep conversation and sharing a passion. However, we feel obligated to always do something together. To avoid awkward silences, we fill the gap with meaningless small talk, or force a shared activity such as watching TV. This can be quite burdening for both parties, especially for introverted people who expend energy when socialising, needing some time alone intermittently to “recharge”.
This is why a marker of a healthy relationship (romantic or platonic) is whether you can comfortably share a silence with someone. Whether it be walking side-by-side without talking, or reading in the same room, there is an ineffable feeling of comfort and safety in sharing a space with someone without being forced to interact.
It is a sign that you trust and know each other to the point that silence does not represent awkwardness or dislike. You have a mutual understanding that even though there is no verbal communication, the other person still cares about you while respecting your need to be an individual.
Ironically, silence and the lack of interaction can allow for a deeper connection. Sharing a silence speaks louder than words to say that you like each other enough that you are okay to let your guard down and be yourself. It means that both of you are content just to feel each other’s presence in the same space.
Most of all, it is a mutual agreement that it is okay not to follow social norms as long as it makes you happy and it doesn’t harm anyone. In an ever-increasingly interconnected world, it is okay to be an individual, even in the presence of company.
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.”
Communication is easy on paper. We say what we think or feel, the other person hears it, and understands it. But in practice, so much can go wrong. Failure to communicate has been the cause of so much grief for people throughout history, even resulting in wars and disasters. Most importantly, poor communication is one of the greatest barriers to building a deep connection with another person.
The problem lies in the fact that despite being social animals, we are quite bad at being social. We care too much about how others may judge us, so we avoid being direct and literal when we communicate our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we choose to encrypt our messages and hope (or worse, expect) that the other person will understand the hidden meaning behind our words.
For example, instead of telling our partner that we are angry at them over something they did, we act passive-aggressively or pick a fight over an unrelated manner. Instead of speaking up about something that is unfair or unjust, we choose to stay silent and accept it to avoid conflict. We will flirt and tease with someone without telling them just how much we adore them. Instead of just saying what is on our mind, we try to package what we want to say in a cryptic form through vague, suggestive messages. Sometimes, we act out like a little boy pulling at the ponytail of a girl he likes on the playground, by sulking or being cruel to our loved ones.
Because we all tend to hide our feelings behind our words and actions, we become conditioned to try and analyse and decode messages to interpret the true meaning of what other people say. But because we are not mind readers, this often leads to misunderstandings. Instead of trying to talk openly with the person, we assume that we have unraveled their true intentions and act on it, which often leads to even more misunderstandings. In time, the relationship breaks down.
This is the reason why practising good communication is such a crucial relationship advice. Why waste our time and energy crafting delicate riddles and trying to be codebreakers, when it will only result in misunderstandings? It would be far more efficient to fight through our awkwardness and insecurities to talk about what is really on your minds.
That said, this is not a simple task and takes a lot of courage and trust. That is why the other takeaway point is how lucky it is to find someone who truly “gets you” – someone who has the patience to listen to you talk in a roundabout way, and spend the effort to try to understand what you really mean. If you find someone who knows you well enough that they can decipher your messages and actually listen to what you are really trying to say, then that is something to be grateful for.
Because the greatest gift we can receive from another person is for them to truly understand us.
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.
In 1989, an array of US Navy hydrophones (underwater microphones) in the North Pacific Ocean discovered a peculiar sound. It sounded very similar to a typical whale song, but there was a crucial difference. Most whales sing at about 10-40Hz, which is a very low frequency sound. However, this specific whale song played at 52Hz – significantly higher than other whale songs.
Bill Watkins was a scientist who became fascinated by this sound. He detected the same sound year after year for over a decade and recognised that it was coming from the same whale. It followed seasonal migration patterns and the song had definite, common features of whale songs. But this song was higher pitch than every other whale he compared it to.
This whale has since been called the “52-hertz whale”, also known as “the world’s loneliest whale”. There have been no other recordings of whale songs like it. There are many theories about what kind of whale it might be, with the leading theory being that it is a hybrid of a blue whale and a fin whale. Because hybrid animals (crossbreeds) have different body morphologies to the parent species, theoretically it could produce a unique sound.
Whales sing to communicate with each other. In the vast ocean, sight becomes easily obscured, but the low-pitched vocalisations of whales can carry on for hundreds of miles. This raises the question of whether the 52-hertz whale’s calls are heard by other whales, given that it is talking in a different frequency range. If they can’t, there is a chance that this whale is calling out into the void, only to be ignored by every other whale. It might have been swimming alone for decades, in search of a partner who can communicate with it.
In some ways, we are all somewhat like the 52-hertz whale. Because we are all unique individuals, even when we talk in the same language, we often misinterpret each other or fail to make a connectionbecause we cannot understand their way of thinking. This is why when you meet someone who thinks on a similar frequency to you, it is a connection worth holding on to. There is no greater thrill than meeting another soul who you can say one thing to and they will understand ten things.
These are the kinds of relationships you should treasure, because for all you know, you may end up like the 52-hertz whale – drifting along the deep blue ocean, desperately calling out in hopes of hearing any kind of reply.
Many people dream of finding “The One” – the perfect romantic companion who is destined to be with you. It is a dominant trope in stories, both old and new. Plato’s The Symposium contains a story about how Zeus split human beings in two to weaken them, so we are always searching for our other half. An old Chinese tale tells the story of the “red string“ – an invisible connection between two people created when they are born, that will eventually bring the two together in the name of true love. There are countless examples of books, movies and TV shows that reinforce the notion that we will all eventually end up with just the right person.
What makes The One so special? Typically, instead of a list of ideal features such as a certain personality or look, most people describe The One as someone who they can connect with, be understood by and feel completed by; someone who they can’t imagine not being with. People who believe in the idea of The One may picture a relationship where things are easy, because the other person will just “get” them and there will be no trouble in paradise. In short, The One represents a perfect relationship with the perfect person, tailored just for you.
But how realistic is the possibility of finding The One? If we look at it from a purely statistical point of view, the chances are infinitesimal. Not only does your match have to be born of your preferred gender, but they must live in the same space and time as you at some point in your life. Even if you happen to find this one person, you have to accommodate for whether you will even notice, let alone be attracted to, them since the qualities you are looking for may vary depending on what stage of life you are at. (Read this wonderful What If? article: https://what-if.xkcd.com/9/)
Of course, the whole point of The One is that despite all of these odds, the two of you are supposed to be brought together by some external force – fate, destiny, the gods, or whatever supernatural power you believe in. Then, it is said that the moment you set eyes on each other, you will feel an instant connection and true love will be born. Some people even believe that “if it is meant to be, it will happen without fail”. Because of this, some people test their relationship by stressing it, or will be more open to letting people go because they believe that if they are truly The One, then surely they will meet again and everything will be alright. This is explored in a short story by Haruki Murakami named On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.
(Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian)
However, as beautiful as the idea of finding The One is, it can be a dangerous – even toxic – idea.
The most obvious problem is that dreaming of The One sets unrealistic expectations. Even when they are with an amazing, supportive, kind partner, some people will consider them only 80% or 90% perfect. Because of the nature of human greed, we always want something better or greater than what we possess. This makes us less grateful for what we currently have and we fail to appreciate how lucky we are to be with our partner. We may even decide to end a relationship in search of greener pastures, only to regret it and remember that person as “the one that got away”.
On the other hand, people are so afraid that they might not realise that someone is The One that they make the classic error of the sunk cost fallacy. They think that they invested so much time in this relationship that if they leave now, they will forever lose the chance to live happily ever after. This often leads to unhappy marriages and even divorce, causing people to miss out on opportunities of finding someone that they will truly be happy with.
Similarly, because we feel the pressure of time passing by while others seemingly find their soulmates and happy endings, we end up feeling desperate. This desperation may push us into forcing relationships with people who do not share our values, treat us unkindly or generally incompatible with us. Some people will fake an encounter with a supposed soulmate, marry them and hide their problems and resentment, while struggling to put on a happy face for the rest of the world.
Another problem with believing in The One is the concept of fate. It is comforting to think that things are predetermined, but this also makes us lazy. What is the point of looking for the right person or fighting to make a relationship work when fate will just throw you The One at some point in your life? If you believe in fate, it makes you complacent and take less action. Instead of taking the leap of faith, communicating and trying to improve yourself, you think instead “it shouldn’t be this hard if they were The One” and give up. Believing that there is someone out there set aside for you is entitlement. Much like anything in the world, luck and probability will only take you so far. Good things will only come to you if you take action and make an effort.
The inherent flaw in the concept of The One is that it is a black-and-white, binary question: “is this person perfect”? The quest for perfection is as futile as a dog chasing its own tail. When the standard you are comparing everything or everyone is perfection, you are sure to be disappointed.
Furthermore, how can we demand a perfect person when we are not perfect ourselves? As we mature, our preferences and needs change with us. Is it not arrogant to think that we know ourselves so well that we can pick out someone that we think will be perfect for the rest of our lives at first glance?
The perfect partner is not someone that will understand our every action, thoughts and words, and cater to our every need. The perfect partner is someone who possesses qualities we value, have imperfections that we can accept and will communicate openly so that we can work things out with them. No human being is perfect, so every relationship needs to be fine-tuned, negotiated and improved on, which involves each person undergoing change, compromise and sacrifices.
This philosophy sets a much more realistic expectation on our partners and ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect or find someone who is perfect: we just have to find someone who is willing to work with us to become perfect for each other eventually. Someone who makes us happy, while helping us grow to be someone that can make them happy.
There is no one true “The One”. The One that matters is the one who – out of all the imperfect people out there – you chose because you find them awesome and want to try work with to build a happy relationship together, and they feel the same way about you.
The One is someone you made a conscious choice to round them up to The One.