Identifying the Why

The why is one of the most difficult introspective questions to answer. There are different why’s in life. Why is my current life this way? Why is my ideal life that way? Why is there a difference between the two? These are difficult questions to answer because they are broad, abstract, and often have no one right answer. After spending a good amount of time thinking, in this article, I try to develop a framework for approaching these questions.

The why questions I am referring to here pertain to those within our control. There are a plethora of why questions along the lines of “Why did this happen to me?” The answers to those questions are outside our control, and not the object of discussion here. In my opinion, dwelling on such questions is rarely useful.

Finally, take these with two grains of salt:

  1. With new experiences and learnings, my thoughts and opinions are bound to change.
  2. What makes sense to me need not make sense to you.

That said, I welcome criticisms that help me understand things that I currently don’t understand or misunderstand.

A framework

At the heart of these why questions lie values. Everything we do stems from some value or moral system that we consciously or subconsciously believe in. There are two different layers to our value system – the primary and the secondary.

The primary values are the atomic values. These include broad things like “honesty,” “strive to be good,” “do no harm” and so on. These are the building blocks of our moral framework. The secondary values are the ones that we build using the atomic values. These are our subjective interpretations of the atomic values. For instance, “should I incite harm on someone who perpetuates harm to reduce the total harm in the world?” I think at the core, many of us share the same atomic values to some degree. It is in our interpretations, prioritization, and execution of these primary values, in other words the secondary values, where differences arise. And for most intents and purposes, when two people have different values, they refer to their secondary values.

This distinction is important because our secondary values are shaped by various factors. So, in effect, our actions and desires are shaped by the same multitude of factors. Now, bear with me as I use a mathematical metaphor for this problem.

A vector space

Think of the value system as the basis for the multidimensional vector space. Each person’s position in this space is determined by several factors. These include things such as expectations of other people, expectations of oneself, fear of death, love for other people, and passion for hobbies or interests.

Each of these factors represent a force field that pulls us in some direction within the value space. If life were simple, we would be pulled only in one direction and we would not have to actively decide anything – just go with the flow. However, life is not that simple. These force fields attempt to pull us in different directions.

When we find ourselves in a position that’s opposite to the force fields (that goes against our values), we do not necessarily enjoy the experience. Therefore, as good physicists, our goal is find the equilibrium location – the state where the forces best align with our values. This is the state that energy due to these various forces is also minimized. This equilibrium corresponds to a position that maximizes our contentedness and fulfillment.

A note on fulfillment: In my mind, fulfillment involves the right combination of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. It involves a healthy amount of pain and discomfort that allows (and motivatues) us to grow without bringing us down. Everything is just enough and we are not yearning for more of any one single thing. This fulfillment does mean that we are happy, but not solely seeking happiness all the time. Life consists of all experiences, happy and sad, and seeking just happiness often backfires. After all, emotions are relative – we can’t appreciate the highs without the lows.

Back to why land

Our goal in answering the why questions is to find this sweet equilibrium. This is hard because it is difficult to even identify these forces. It is easier to just go with the flow of one or two factors and let our overall happiness slide. This is what I meant by “making choices of distractions,” or living a life that’s not your own.

Now, the steps to achieve equilibrium are “straightforward.”

  1. Identify what the different factors are that influence our actions, decisions, and values.
  2. Balance the tradeoff between these facets of life.

Of course, this is easier said than done. If identifying the different factors is difficult by itself, balancing them is probably impossible, even for a physicist. Perhaps it makes sense to go with the flow initially, then re-evaluate once in a while to understand how things are going and how we can alter the trajectory towards the equilibrium. This is akin to a statistician’s optimization procedure – start with a (likely to be bad) guess, and repeatedly make corrections to get closer to the optimum.

The key idea here is the re-evaluation. If we do not continuously re-evaluate, we will get stuck in a rut. Perhaps, I will write more on what it means to perform this re-evaluation in the future. And maybe even come up with concrete ideas instead of abstract metaphors and analogies.