Thursday, 20 January 2011

What do you want from life

I am 24 years old. There is something inherently strange about being a 24 years old. People my age, including myself, appear somewhat unhappier than their own selves just a couple years ago.

The idea that merely being 24 seems to make you unhappy sounds immensely intriguing. It came from baseless intuition though. I took a walk and thought about the whole thing anyway. As it turned out, there are legitimate reasons for life to suddenly become uncomfortable at 24.

By 24, you have already been two years into the real world. Two years are about time you discover how it works. The real world apparently encourages you to acquire money and position. In order to acquire money and position, you can either work your ass off or exploit corporate politics. The first option compromises your youth. The second one compromises your soul. Needless to say both are undesirable. That the real world sucks is only a matter of deduction.

Because it sucks, we do everything we can to procrastinate. The most obvious mechanism is through graduate school. You can not only delay joining the real world that way, but also avoid it altogether by staying in the academia.

Unfortunately not everyone is made for the academia. The rest of us tend to take less rewarding approaches. Part of the reason we are attracted to online games is because they introduce an alternative world. Part of the reason we cling to the past is because high schools are better than companies, at least in the sense that we cared more about each other back then. This is one of those occasions where having a happy childhood holds you back from moving on.

Procrastination brings along anxiety and depression. Faced with anxiety and depression, we are inclined to blame on external factors. We blame the economy to be inefficient. We blame the society to be materialistic. We blame the weather to be random. We blame our girlfriends/boyfriends to be annoying.

Of course the economy is inefficient. Of course people are materialistic. Of course the weather is random. But there is nothing you can do about them. You think you can change your girlfriend/boyfriend though. Odds are that she/he thinks so too. This in turn creates a vicious circle where a couple naively wear each other out.

Perhaps it’s time to stop procrastinating and accept the real world. As a matter of fact, once you are ready to leave everything behind and fully embrace it, you acknowledge that the obstacle blocking your way is actually not the allergy toward money and position at all, but the fear of giving an answer to the question of what you want from life.

In the absence of a fulfilling purpose, you are severely manipulated by parental and social pressure. Life is meaningless anyway, so you may as well make your parents proud. You don’t know what to do with your life anyway, so you may as well do what everyone else is doing. These forces ultimately lead you to accumulate money and climb the social ladder.

Precisely because of parental and social pressure that you are afraid to confront the question of what you want from life. Both the act of admitting what you want and the idea of living to satisfy yourself are taboo in our society. They are notorious signals of narcissism and selfishness. Narcissism and selfishness are bad. And you stop right here. You have been trained for 24 years to reduce every equation to the form of good or bad, black or white.

Except the world is fuzzy. Hardly anything can be reduced to this simplistic form. A better way to think is whether you want something or not. You don’t want to be treated as a narcissist because people will isolate you. You don’t want people to isolate you because you want social interaction. You want social interaction because humans are social animals. That’s why you should avoid appearing blatantly selfish in public. Not because selfishness is bad.

Another significant question is how much you want something. In retrospect, I thought I want to spend my life solving Fermat’s Last Theorem when I was 13. What I didn’t realize is that even if I could have solved Fermat’s Last Theorem at 13, that still wouldn’t have made me happier than a kiss from the girl I liked at the time. I did want to solve Fermat. Just not much.

Note that it is pointless to include money in the list of what you want from life. Money is an abstraction for too many things that by itself it means virtually nothing. People commonly use money to buy living standard, respect, and power. When you ask yourself how much you want the thing money is a representative for, you can be surprised how often it is more convenient to directly get something rather than earn money and then buy it.

Many of the things you want are admittedly best achieved through a combination of money accumulation and self-gratification. But at least now you treat money as the means to an end. At least now you are driven by a concretely specified purpose instead of empty dollars.

Projecting the pursuit of happiness around the concept of what one wants makes life reasonably fair. Richer people desire higher living standard than poorer ones. Smarter people are naturally more ambitious than dumber ones. Prettier people are more demanding than homelier ones. We all need to do about the same amount of work to satisfy ourselves.

At the end of the day, the crisis at 24 can be perceived as a major challenge that life asks of us. We can either deny the challenge and settle for mediocrity, or grow to adapt the new situation. The very first step of growth, it seems, is to take responsibility for our own happiness. We don’t know exactly what we want from life yet, but I suppose asking the question is a good start. We will tweak the answer along the way.

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