Sunday 10 November 2019

Relativism And Happiness

In human life and in human mind every concept, every emotion, every thought,...actually everything is relative to something else. Well, for meaningful existence of anything we need to understand (or at least know) its context. Nothing is complete and absolute in and of itself. This is what I call as relativism.

It is not often that we let life happen to us, without putting up a question - "why?". The very reason we want to ask the why-question(s): "why is it so...why did you do it...why is it so hot...why me?" shows we need added information to make sense of what we have in that moment.

Through this post I neither intend to explain further about theory of relativism, nor delve into our need for more information, i.e. context, to understand the moment. As I see it, our need for context exists and that's that! However, there is a link between relativism and our happiness, and the intention of this post is to highlight this link.

In my previous post, A Philosophical Question, I had introduced the following equation of happiness quotient (happiness at any given moment):

What I have received - what I expected to receive = Happiness Quotient (H.Q.)

As per this equation, our happiness is dependent on reality (what I have received) and expectations. The bad news is, we can neither be in control of what we receive nor become absolutely expectation-less. The good news is, we can learn to change meaning of reality (by changing its context) and recalibrate our expectations as we live on. The way we can do both (although one at a time) is to learn to better manage our emotional responses to both - the reality we face and the level of unmet expectations. It is here, learning to better manage our emotions that relativism plays a role and that's the link between relativism and happiness.

There is one thing that we know how to do, inherently, is to look for context and reach meaning. 

We love dogs, to the extent to claim that dogs are man's best friend (sorry - human's best friend...hope the feminists would let this be!). Correction, we love pet dogs. If we come across a stray dog, very often the first emotion is not that of love and compassion - it is fear. Pet dogs bring out positive emotions in us and give us higher degree of happiness than stray dogs - where neither the individual dog nor its breed has done anything to us directly (yet!). Context has dogs, whether our own or of anybody else's, are more likely to be better trained and healthier (with all required vaccinations given) than the stray dogs.

However, there are some individuals (might not be many) who find it in their heart to love stray dogs just as much (or more) as pet dogs. There difference is that these people manage to change context in their mind, think of dogs as inherently human-friendly and quickly realise that stray dogs' unreliable reactions (such as biting a human) could be stemmed in its own fear of humans or its experience of being ill-treated by humans in past (relativism!). These people choose to believe that stray dogs, too, need love and care. 

Based on their past experiences, these people also recalibrate their expectations from both, the dog (towards them) and from themselves (towards the dog), leading to a happier interaction than one based on fear and ignorance. Not to say that these people have never been bitten by a stray dog, or never been met by less-than-friendly reaction from one. With experience and will, they have learned not to make certain sudden movements that can unsettle the dog, or that just because the dog lunges at them it is not with the intent to hurt them (relativism!). They have learned to manage their emotional-responses over time, which ultimately helps them recalibrate their expectations for future.

As seen in the above example, it is possible to change context of what we have received, recalibrate our expectations and learn to control our emotional-responses. Whether we manage to change all or just one - it is good to know that we do possess some degree of control over happiness all the time, provided we understand relativism. Relativism at the very least provides fluidity to our understanding of life and thus to our experiences - being rigid is not how we can live this life and be happy.

Looking at life through the lens of relativism helps us acknowledge that the reality we face has more than one perspectives (and thus meaning) - one that we are seeing, experiencing, feeling...and that that other person is seeing, experiencing, feeling, before getting carried away by our initial emotional-response to the balance between the reality we face and what we expected it to be.

Sunday 3 November 2019

A Philosophical Question

Recently a friend asked a philosophical question:

"How do you know what you are feeling is happiness?"

This got me thinking at a deeper level - not only about happiness, but also about our feelings and what we think we know. In order to even attempt answering, I had to first form an understanding of three words of the question: know, feeling and happiness. I realised that the question in front of me was not only about happiness, but also a wider question about what we know, how we feel, how to know happiness and how to be happy (not feel happy).

We all know things, we know when it is morning and when it is night, we know which day of the week it is, we know 2+2 = 4 etc. The question is, how do we know that we know? Is it something that others tell us and that's all - we all have been told to call certain hours of the day as morning and certain other hours of the same day as night. We all have been told that 2+2 = 4, and that 2+3 = 5 (not 4).

Is this all that it would take for us to know things: someone telling us something that we don't already know? Or is it something slightly deeper?

Will we know that there is indeed alien life in another part of this universe, if someone just tells us that there is? Will we know that babies are actually delivered by storks, just because someone says they saw it with their own eyes?

My guess is NO!

Thus, the answer to the question "How do we know that we know something?", is we know that we know something when we are convinced of an idea and believe it to be true. It is only with conviction does an idea or a piece of information becomes part of our knowledge.

We need to be convinced about a new idea before we believe it. It is only after we are convinced and believe in what we are being told (or are reading) by someone else that we start to know things. This means, if we get convinced and believe in alien life and storks delivering babies, then we would know both these (and similar) ideas to be true.

It is because of simple conviction in an idea, which may be absurd to most others, people believe and know things. Ask any flat-earther, if earth is flat and they would say yes. Flat-earthers even have their own society: Flat Earth Society (their Twitter handle:

Given there are many who know the earth as flat and many who know human-life on earth is not due to evolution (but...), it definitely seems that we can convince ourselves about anything that we want to (badly enough, deeply enough).

Thus - we can equally convince ourselves our life is good, bad or ugly if we truly deeply badly wanted to.

Second part of the philosophical question that I want to address is about feelings. Why are we so close to our moment-to-moment feelings? Why do we need to feel good all the time? Why are we unable / incapable to accept that there will be moments that don't make us feel good and then there will be moments that will make us feel ecstatic?

Feelings are transient, they come and go. Feelings don't last more than a moment, unless we convince ourselves that any particular moment's feeling deserves more attention. I don't know the physiological and psychological reasons for this, but we are more likely to pay closer & deeper attention to the bad feelings than good feelings.

Love and sex (let's say with one person) make us feel good. But if we fight with this very same person, this bad feeling lasts a lot longer than the good feeling of being in love and the high of orgasmic sex.

The more we become slave to the thought of how we are feeling, the more we realise that we feel bad more than good because it is ingrained in us to attach higher weightage to bad feelings than good feelings. The challenge, as per me, is not to know how we are feeling at every moment but to learn how not to get attached with any momentary feeling. Life, although lived moment to moment, is an example where the whole is greater than the the sum of all moments we live.

This may require us to always bring some distance between the moment we are in and our view of our life. If we are having a bad moment, or even a bad day...with a little distance brought in we can quickly realise that this bad moment or day does not define us and our life. We can then move on to thinking of all the good that we have experienced in our life up to that point and all the good that is yet to come. This distance would allow us to not assign a higher weightage to the bad over the good.

The downside of this distance is that it disallows us to fly-too-high with happiness. This distance tells us that if the present moment is good (probably extremely good), then this too shall pass...after all it is just a moment!

Finally, let's look at the concept of happiness and happyness.

Happiness is defined as a state of being happy. If happiness is a state of being happy, then happyness is being happy (period!).

It is not being happy in life, it is knowing the feeling in that moment is good - which makes us feel happy and our happiness quotient goes up in that moment. So - what is happiness quotient? It is an emotional equation, where the balance tells us whether to feel happiness or sadness. The equation goes something like this (limited for only that we consider as good for ourselves):

What I have received - what I expected to receive = Happiness Quotient (H.Q.)

Simply put: in any given situation, whether a moment or a day or lifetime, we can look at the equation above to know if our happiness quotient says we are happy or sad.

For example: I have to sit for a marked multiple choice exam (say GMAT), but I don't / can't prepare as well as I would have liked. When I take this exam, I don't know many answers, but due to nature of the exam I can guess and mark one of the choices given as my answer. As soon as I complete this exam, my expectation for a high-score are low because I wasn't convinced whether my guess-work would have worked in my favour or against.

Now, if on this exam I get a score that is higher than what my expected score was, then I am high on H.Q. and if I get a low score I am not low of H.Q. because my expectations were low to begin with.

'What I have minus what my expectations were', is really the simplest form of understanding how we are feeling in any given moment.

If you can convince yourself that the above equation works, you would know that feeling of happiness is not entirely out of your control. In many instances we bring down our happiness quotient by setting our expectations too high. This leads to a lower H.Q. and since bad feelings last longer, we become attached to this unhappy moment and carry on feeling sad for longer than the individual moment's outcome deserved.

Let's go back to the original question with which started: "How do you know what you are feeling is happiness?". We have seen that knowing is about our conviction in an idea, feelings are transient (momentary) and happiness is an equation. However, because I believe this question wasn't about knowing if we are feeling happiness in any given moment, but about being happy, I would reframe the question as:

How do you convince yourself that over a considerable period of time you have received more than you expected to?

With this reframed question, I can confidently say that most people are happy today. Only if they could get away from "how are you feeling in the present moment" bullshit!

In my life, let's childhood had all the non-materialistic good that a child could ask for...but the family's first car came when I was 12 years old, the first telephone (landline) came when I was 16 years this family has multiple cars and each individual has at least one handphone (actually smartphones)...all of us in this family continue to be loved by the ones we love...all of us have our health and are doing well in our lives.

Unless I can look at a considerable period of time, any given moment holds the power over me to make me sad. Unless I can understand that my expectations can be as high as the sky, i.e. a bit unrealistic, I will continue to be disappointed with what I have and thus be sad. Unless I understand that I hold some control over the equation of happiness, I will never manage my own happyness.

Being in a state of anything changes from one state to another as water changes from being in the liquid state to solid state or gaseous state depending on conditions it is subjected to. We too change from being in a state of being happy (i.e. happiness) to being in the state of being sad - depending on the situations and conditions we are subjected to. Do we want to leave our happyness to the conditions we will never fully be in control of? It is by using the the power of conviction, ability to distance myself from the moment to look at my life in broader perspective and correctly evaluating the equation of happiness that I find my happyness.

Imagine how strong it is to be happy than be in the state of being happy. And I would any day be in the pursuit of happyness than momentary happiness.