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Life and the Pursuit of Happiness

July 24, 2017

A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. — Ayn Rand

We are social creatures. Mankind rose to its greatness because of our ability to communicate with each other, share our stories and help and look out for each other. Without this, we would not be able to climb up the food chain the way we did. However, this ascent to the top and the perceived camaraderie does not come without a cost. The duality that abounds in nature, which states that every aspect of life is created from a balanced interaction of opposite and competing forces, makes it apparent that with the positives come the negatives. Too often we are battling with each other and trying to “win” against each other. Let us try and delve into the rationale behind this.

In all of us, there are 2 aspects of the brain —

There is the primitive brain or the ape brain, that keeps us alive. Its the part of our brain that is looking out for our survival, measuring our flight or flight, giving us the killer instinct to go out there and achieve things.

And then there is the polished, modern brain. While we were hunters and gatherers back in the day, things are much, much more different in the recent past. In order to deal with the problems of modern life, we have created a shell around the primitive brain.

Let me try explaining that further with a computer science analogy. In computer science, the kernel is the core part of the computer’s operating system and has complete control over everything going on in the computer. The operating system itself is the medium that the computer uses to converse with the external world. So in this analogy, the kernel is the primitive brain and the operating system is the polished brain. The kernel is fairly robust and doesn’t change around much whereas the operating system or the OS keeps getting upgrades from time to time. This is similar to the way our brain functions because the development of the primitive brain is fairly stable at this point. It has taken millennia to get to this point, and will not change state by much during the lifetime of a human being. The modern brain though is always looking for more and more and more.

We are looking at the world around us and are wondering, what we could do better and how we could do it better. Do not get me wrong, this is the virtue that propelled our species to the lead runner in this race. However, if not tamed, it can also end up in resulting in you being your own worst enemy. Manners in which these negativities manifest can start off as trivial but over time, result in becoming reasons that drive your decision-making. As an example, jealousy or envy is one such negativity. Yearning to achieve that level of wealth that some acquaintance has; that gorgeous car or high salary or great looks and body that your friend has; or taking trips to exotic locations that some acquaintance of yours took are all feeding mechanisms to the building up of the volcano of jealousy. They could be motivators to achieve your own goals but more likely than not, aren’t. We are looking for these short term milestones to help us maintain status quo but often lose sight of the bigger picture due to this. Let me just jump back to another computer science analogy for one last time.

If we compare ourselves to iPhones, then our wants and desires are akin to iPhone upgrades. When has anyone ever been happy with their iPhone upgrades? I mean sure, every now and then you get this amazing upgrade which makes you content, but most of the time you’d hear people complain about the upgrades making their phone buggy or just slow in general. That analogy fits perfectly with how we can view and thus weigh, our desires.

Am I advocating being a monk and living up in the Himalayas? No, unless that is something you want to do of course. On the contrary, I am merely suggesting an internal system of rigor to determine what is the intrinsic value-add of the object desired. There is a cost associated with anything we chase which is inherent in the duality of life.

The question for all of us then becomes a fairly simple one with not-so-simple ramifications — does the cost of acquiring the object we desire outweigh the benefits. Everyone has their own meter of what they value and consider beloved. Perhaps on another day, I might get into the details of how I make this decision, but I want to leave you with a Parthian shot — if you desire something, be it an object or outcome — know why you do so and even more importantly, know how that narrative weaves into the tapestry that is your life.