Friday, July 10, 2009

The Dual of Happiness

A huge number of people I know (me included till recently) are very pained/depressed/unhappy/uninspired by whatever they are doing, and the symptoms are almost exactly the same. Some typical features, collected from a pool of conversations with a lot of people, seem to be -

1. Life seems to be led more by following constraints than following objectives. It's so algorithmic[1] that sometimes deadlines are almost craved for, because they give the enormous comfort of just doing what you are asked to do within a certain time. If you have hard constraints, then you don't need to worry about wondering if could have done something else that could have led to different, better things. "I had to do it because of hard constraints X, Y and Z" is such a relief when justifying your decisions to yourself! If you don't have to do something, making a choice is hell itself.

2. All ambition, at least in the direction you've chosen, seems to have dried up. Ambition and drive which were propelling you forward to achieve more and more seem now to be tortuously dragging you down an unhappy path. You realize that there's no end to where you're going, no closure. There's always something that seems just out of reach, and slogging today appears to help you reach that.

Doing a PhD? You better work hard if you want a Faculty position. That's the best use of your work and fight so far, the best you can do from your position. MBA? Get into consulting, and slog there so that you can get into Private Equity. Job? Get as much 'countable' experience as possible to that you can get into a good B-School, hopefully in the top 10 in the US. The more you know about the path and as the fog clears up to reveal the very long road ahead, the less amazing/worthy it seems.

It doesn't stop there. You're an assistant prof? Go fight for tenure and grants. Private Equity? Partner before 35 or bust. Don't you just love your work?

3. A significantly higher emphasis on relationships, and not just romantic ones. Coupled with this is almost crippling nostalgia and excessive dwelling on some happy moments in the past. There's a quote I recollect from one of Jugu's status messages - 'The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealized past."

4. Romantic relationships deserve an entire dissertation on their own, but we'll suffice to quote XKCD (who quoted the most excellent WarGames) and say it seems to be a game where the only winning move is to not play, and that choice too results in a loss.

5. Absolute, sweeping, riveting disinterest in whatever path you chose. Heaven save you if you had good options to choose from - each of those becomes a stinging gnawing 'could-have-been' nightmare.

6. A very deep realization that almost nothing happens like the conventional wisdom of "1. Set Goal 2. Reach Goal 3. Be happy". Things that do follow this path are usually of absolutely no interest or consequence. Reminds me of one of Zeno's paradoxes, where he argues that a rabbit can never race the tortoise because in order to get past it, the rabbit must first reach the tortoise. But in the time it takes to reach the tortoise, the tortoise would have moved a bit further, and the rabbit must again catch up. Zeno the lucky bastard was dealing with a convergent series, but is everyone as lucky?

7. A question as simple as 'What do you want to do?' seems impossible to answer. It's all an unholy mix of "I wanted to do this at that time" + "If you do this it will be good/future will be secure/you will prove yourself/it will be a validation of your abilities" + "X, Y and Z chose this path for alpha, beta and gamma reasons which seem to be applicable to you" + "Relax, take your time, you'll eventually start enjoying it".

8. You see the ultimate paradox of planning - you're trying to direct your actions in a state where you know more (the future), sitting from a state where you know less(the present). If it works out at all, it has to be by chance.

9. There are always people, very visible people, who are happy in their niches and surging ahead. Their growth seems to be exponential (not just figuratively - the rate of growth is proportional to how far you've gone). So tell me again, what have you done in the past 3 months?

10. "You should have known". A friend here put it very succinctly - "The only bottleneck is now you". There's no lack of information, no lack of tools, no lack of options, no lack of anything.

11. Indecision. Pervasive, biting indecision. You're absolutely convinced of one thing in the morning and another thing at night, so much that you don't even know if you're the same person.

12. Anyone who seems to know what he's doing suddenly becomes a highly sought-after commodity. Advice flows in freely from all directions and towards all directions, and the 'right' thing is the thing that was last most forcefully impressed on your mind.

13. You're safe as long as you're far away. As long as no one really understands what you're doing (which is extremely likely if you're doing anything remotely non-trivial). "If only they knew of the things that people do here", you think.

14. There is an anchoring towards over-dramatizing one positive aspect of somebody else's life, to the point of grieving that you don't have it. Money is too trivial an example, but consider something like traveling. You feel a deep sense of lack that your job/life doesn't involve much traveling, and fantasize about how awesome it'd be to see the world. It's normal to feel that in passing, but in this state it seems as if your life is incomplete without it.

15. There's a tendency to want to live life as if walking backwards. You want to make sure that you make the 'right' choice before making it, even in cases where it's impossible to know the consequences.  An abnormal urge to super-optimize everything. A thought-train like this is common - "I'm OK with my job right now. But imagine what I might be missing! What if I instead I was doing this? How do I know I won't like it more than what I am doing?". This is too is a perfectly normal thought in passing, but in this state you feel it right in you, and it's gnawing at you.

The same principle to thinking about projects/offers. You want to take up that job or that project which you are 'best suited' for. You're worried that if you take up something that is not 'fit' for you, you will waste time and everyone will go ahead. This tendency to super-optimize really starts to bite your ass when you see multiple 'good' options, if only 'good' because of your ignorance. Buridan's ass, I meant :-)

16. You realize the greatest con of organized slavery: The reward for hard work is the opportunity to do more hard work.

17. Thanks to Nikhil for this one; So far, all your time has gone into proving the existence of potential. Did well in entrance exams? Good, you could do well in engineering. Did well in engineering? You could do well in grad school. Did well in grad school? You could do well in research. Did a great PhD? You could do well in a career in research. Showed promise as a junior researcher? You could do well in middle management. Every single thing you do is a (likely nonconstructive) existence proof.

18. You do something, say X. Maybe you liked it, or were neutral to it, or let me put it this way, you didn't hate it. People see that you've done X, and give you something related to do, X1. X2, X3,... Very soon, you've so much related to X that that's your only 'qualification'! Even if you now hate X, you're too experienced in X to start clean, or at least that is how you perceive it. You're 'stuck' doing something you once liked, but no longer enjoy.

This happy state of affairs seems to be rather well approximated by the idea of a Quarter Life crisis, but everyone has their own flavor. The solution to all this is? I have no freaking clue.

But about everything else: the most exalted and most venerable Raja Rao once said to an overzealous ED class in glorious Guntur Gult: 'myaake dengevaadu okkadu unte toke ettevadu okkadu untaadu'. (The glory is all but lost in translation, but still: 'If there's someone ready to fuck a goat, there'll someone else ready to lift its tail. [So chill, dude]').

You know you're living an eventful life when you take solace in Raja Rao's expletives :-)

Update (Nov 7): A very nice article in the New York times, The Referendum:
"We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning."
As I said, brilliant article.

Update (Dec 4): A very nice 2 minute video: Music and Life

Update (Dec 28): Career advice from Charlie Hoehn: "Therein lies the best career advice I could possibly dispense: just DO things. Chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. Stop acting like you have a set path, because you don't. No one does. You shouldn't be trying to check off the boxes of life; they aren't real and they were created by other people, not you. There is no explicit path I'm following, and I'm not walking in anyone else's footsteps. I'm making it up as I go."

Update (Dec 31): Is it today's individualism that's at the core of such problems? In Africa they won’t feel lonesome tonight

[1] and Title: A 'dual' to an optmization problem is looking at the problem from the point-of-view of a person on the other end of the transaction. For example, if you're minimizing the cost for some buyer in some given cirumstance, the dual of that problem is maximizing the price for the seller in the same circumstance. The constraints of the dual correspond to the variables you can play with in the original, 'primal' problem. Here, you seem to want to minimize regret and eliminate wrong choices than maximize happiness. What you'd normally consider objectives turn into constraints.

About constraints and objectives, there are two very broad divisions of optimization algorithms: the first kind, which slide along constraints and check if they are improving the value of objective. Constraints are very important for this kind, because they can greatly simplify the search. The very famous Simplex algorithm is an example of this kind. I had written a small, general-purpose article about the history of this method a long time ago, and in case you're interested, here it is (Page 26).

The second kind of algorithms care more about the objective function first, and use that as a guide to move around and try to stay within the constraints. Karmarkar's interior point algorithm is of this kind.

So when I say 'algorithmic', I really mean algorithmic :-)


Bhatteshhhhhh said...

The happiest part of your happiness post was in the very first line.

If only the post had been on how you stopped experiencing all the symptoms you list, it would have helped almost the entire class of 2008 come out of their quarter life crises. :)

The world wants to know how it all changed for you. Was it, by any chance, a Jaggesh movie?

Vineet Pandey said...

Very nicely put. Covers almost all the various phases.

Mohan K.V said...

@Bhatta - I honestly don't know! First was most of this list concurrent with the worst depression I've known, then was this phase when I didn't care and was worried about it, and then I didn't care that I didn't care and all is merriment and joy :)

Not Jaggesh movies, alas, they aren't too popular on Veoh. About 10 Anant Nag movies and multiple runs of Raktakanneeru - now you're talking, brother! :)

@Vineet: Thank you!

Anonymous said...

very well written... I totally feel you brother. have you heard of Jiddu Krishnamurthi? He is the most intelligent and logical philosopher I've come across. If possible, get hold of some book of his(free ebook style). You will start finding a way out of this. and no, I have no agenda. :)

Anonymous said...

hey KV .. summed it up for all of us man!

Sameer said...

KV, agree with most of what you said. My current meta-truth in life is that you progress through a sequence of truths as you grow older and the truth at this point of time is what you think is all-consuming. The "set goal, achieve, all peace" was something that worked in college. It'll still work in grad school if you promise not to look around yourself too much. At the risk of mediocrity, current life truth is more vague, has non-linear goals and is not very strongly tied to achievement. Also, it is probably time to ditch the attitude of pursuing globally optimal and "correct" goals. Most of the people who seem to know what they are doing and think it's the perfect thing to do haven't discovered any truths. They have just (randomly) chosen some bias which effectively eliminates all self-doubt, etc. In the optimization setup, this means choosing enough constraints so that you don't really have to worry about exploring any space to optimize - you have only a few points in your space :-)

Harish Suryanarayana said...

Very well written and very relevant, especially in the summer, when people actually have some time to try to think rather than just mechanically slog away. Nice post. Not that thinking helps in anyway, but its a start :)

pota said...

You have started reminding me more and more of the goth kids in South Park.

karthikv4u said...

A lil grim post ...but showing signs you are indeed ALIVE.... exhaustive

Bharadwaj said...

Completely on the dot dude... Pretty much reflects my state of mind right now :) Maybe I'll just take comfort in the fact that I'm not just the only one thinking like this :P

Mohan K.V said...

@Anon: Will do, sir! Meanwhile, who are you?

@Muski, Harish and Brado: Thank you very much, kind sirs! Muski's 'How do you convince yourself?' is quite a read, too!

@Sameer: I have a terrible record of replying to your elaborate and well thought-out comments, but I'll make a start :-) I think your meta-truth idea is absolutely spot on. Frost once wrote about a similar idea - ""Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor." The trouble is that we all seem to have a morbid drive to seem consistent with what we have done/believed in the past, no matter how much more information we have gained.

And what you say about cherry-picking points to "optimize" amongst is gospel truth. Quite paradoxically, the people who are most open to what they want to do (or, have the most open idea of what success means) are the worst affected! If you have a irrational hatred of wearing suits to work, or nurture an intense dislike for the color of the company's/university's buildings, or are righteously indignant at some act that happened decades ago (I swear, I have heard people very vociferously spout these as motivations for their choices), you're much better off than a person who doesn't hate or like anything very much.

It has almost come to a choice between being bigoted, or wallowing in indecision and self-doubt. The trait of 'reasonableness' that has stood us in good stead all this while is now a major irritant. Yes, we didn't like the hundred odd KMNO4 reactions in inorganic chemistry, nor did we like the torture of Engineering Drawing, nor were we enraptured by our BTPs.. but somehow we were reasonable enough to endure them in the belief that they would lead to better things, and that they did. But now, when you seek advice and can see the bigotry right in front of your eyes, where do you go? The extent of prejudice and bias down to the minutest detail is staggering. "Macha that company does no remotely decent work"; "Macha Biomechanics is bogus"; "Macha X is god/ultimate/awesome. It's pointless if you don't do X"; "Macha I hate probability"; For a reasonable man, so far as our understanding went, it didn't matter whether something is exciting/likable/boring/painful. If it had to be done, it had to be done.

Oh well, I guess it's time we grew up. Let's start. C++ sucks, no? :-)

@Karthik: Most honoured that you think it is exhaustive, I hope I will have no more (re)discoveries of this sordid sort :-)

@Pota: You'll know when/if it hits you. Till then, kindly sod off.

Mohan K.V said...

From Anush's shared link:

Mechanic said...

i have a serious doubt regarding ur post....
Do you think that the current crisis which we are facing is applicable to all (may be most) of the souls at our age or is only for the people coming from India (and other countries where a person is "guided" till the age of 20).
As far as I am concerned I totally agree with what you feel....

jimmy said...

@KV, Scary man!
@Sameer, I didnot understand much of it, though it seemed deeply thought out.

julie/muchhi said...

Aptly written , it sure did leave a smile on my face once I had done reading it :)

atul said...

let me get this straight...Mohan, disillusioned?...eventually? you are a mortal after, thats a disappointment..but succinctly put, i must in the words of Wodehouse " What you want and what you get in life are substantially different things.."

mohan said...

maga... lovely...I did not expected this to come out as a blog post. How many ever hours we put mokkai on this topic, it is always nice to read it. I wish I could jump with excitement about all the OR you spoke. But yeah OK, nice to listen, light OK let all science be with people who get high on it... I think I should send it to my advisor, but no I do not want a pink slip next day :D

Anonymous said...

One more IITian got enlightened maga life is not like JEE questions.

In life there are no correct choices or optimal ones;
one choice leads to another...

Anonymous said...

It is somewhat interesting that you are faced with this, this early in grad school. I faced this after graduating and starting work. When someone mentioned quarter life crises and suggested that it was so late for me to have one, all I could retort was that grad school was in fact a vacuum, your physical age notwithstanding.

The one line that stuck to me was actually in your comment "Quite paradoxically, the people who are most open to what they want to do (or, have the most open idea of what success means) are the worst affected!"

The comment can also be stated as: "What drives you and keeps you motivated?" An answer to this will enable people to come off their crises - that much I am certain.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post after a speculative period of time. Dont you think that these are essential parts of every phase of growth - sort of like the teething problem - your life would depend on choices you are making in every phase of your life - and any sort of progress, brings these questions/question-induced-state-of-mind. You try to solve the underlying puzzle, pick up a few more clues, take a few turns, land up in a new puzzle-situation.
Very interesting post, at a pertinent time.

Mohan K.V said...

@Mechanic: All is maya guru. I'd like to think it sucks for most people >:-)

@Jimmy: Scary, absolutely. But meh :)

@El Muchi Sher-e-midwest Slavesahibul-Pasha: Glad to have been of service, Master! :-)

@Atul: Aye, sir. Also, What you want continuing to be what you once wanted, to borrow from PGW, "has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild cat's left ear with a red-hot needle." :-)

@Mojan: ROFL, it will be high studness if you start talking to Nelson about life :D Glad you liked the optimization bits, was wondering if it was too distracting :-)

@Anon-1: I'm not sure if I see the enlightenment, 'Screw It All' certainly doesn't seem that profound :-)

I don't agree that there are _no_ correct choices; only that it is not possible to _know_ if a choice is good for you beforehand.

That one choice leads to another is a fine thing to marvel at when all is well, but it doesn't help you in any way when you need to make a choice. So, will you app or not? Do you ditch your job or not? Propose to her or let it be a tale for your grandchildren? :-)

@Anon-2: That's a nice start! I'll put up an update to the post with the line you mentioned. Thanks!

@Anon-3: That's a nice, comforting way to think about it. I only wish we don't get bored of solving puzzles :-)

dileepvr said...

I don't care if you become an Anarchist super villain (I'll join you). Just stay away from divinity ^_^

Vikas Shenoy said...


Great post!

I suddenly cherish whatever is left of my undergrad life more than ever before!

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

"8. You see the ultimate paradox of planning - you're trying to direct your actions in a state where you know more (the future), sitting from a state where you know less(the present). If it works out at all, it has to be by chance."

And I am putting all this fight in order to study planning? Shit! What's to become of me?

Mahesh Mahadevan said...

KVM... very disturbing to read this, and the comments that followed. Aptly written for the months missed.

Why do I get the impression that every person has to decide that the part of life they are in now, sucks the most?

May we all be saved from having this phase of life, or at least have to deal with it minimally.

I refuse to comment further on this topic as I am an imbecile :-)

wolverine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wolverine said...

a very nihilistic post chetta. Though logically sound, it very much takes the half empty glass view on life. I can empathize with you on the fruitlessness of ambitions, since they are never an end in themselves.

The larger aims are pointless in the short run, still they are required for a sense of "purpose". My proposed solution would be to enjoy the journey - each small things have their share of joy to give. It can be something as simple as a sunny day ;D

Anand said...

Two things

1. Point 8 sounds like an anti-Maxwell's Devil sort of thing.

2. As has been mentioned, a lot of people totally relating to it. Which begs the question, if everyone's doing what they don't want, or are confused about it, is there something wrong with the entire structure of life itself? I mean, if life was capitalist, the invisible hand should correct this?

Also, I think we IITians overthink such stuff :)

vijay said...

The cynical mood need not be there.Many have come and many have gone, still the world trudges on. Thinking that search for constant is the ultimate is chimera. Change is the only constant.Acquire a philosophy or adopt one.I find Budda the rational solution for our disillusionments. he teaches us how to live in the present.But the path is not easy.

Lakshmi said...

At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, junta, you are young, for God's sake. You have a stretch of post grad blues, job-search woes, in-job lows, partner-search pains, post-honeymoon bore, diaper-changing nights and the various familial and professional deadlines ahead that would make you fondly remember your "youth hood", sans responsibility, and I bet you'd write a post (if you still blog) on how you'd love to get back the algorithmic life of yore.
Save this post for a hearty laugh in the not-so-distant future.

pushki said...

Really thoughtful write up i must say. And generally, a well populated blog with lots of (readable) content. Way to go!

Mohan K.V said...

@dileep: Aye, master! As our patron saint once said, "Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you... stranger."

@Vikas: :-)

@KRC: There you have it :)

@Nai: It's really very hard to sympathize if you haven't personally felt it..

@Cheta: Aye! That's true, if you can enjoy the journey, nothing like it!

@Ducky: That's a nice thought! Btw, there are some relatively new theories of why the demon works; Earlier, people were thinking that it was because the demon generated more entropy (irreversibility) by making the choice. Now some theories claim that it's more information-theoretic, and that demon cannot have infinite processing power. I'm tempted to draw analogies, but let me stop :)

I don't quite agree with you on the invisible hand, though. First, the kind of stuff you want to do may not have any value to anyone else whatsoever.. but yes, things will eventually settle down, and we'll speak of the good old days :)

@Vijay: Will read up

Mohan K.V said...

@Lakshmi: I'm not sure what you're trying to say. Be happy now because there are more sucky things ahead?

Fondly remembering "youth hood" is more a tautology than any meaningful reasoning. The way your memory functions will ensure that you remember happy events much, much more strongly than the sad events, (Rosy restrospection, Memory more important than reality). People fondly remember wars, and that I think says enough about the soundness of statements like "Pooh, you have no perspective, wait till you grow up and look back".

Oh well, as they say, Youth is probably wasted on the young :)

Kaushal.... said...

A good read. But, I guess such thoughts arise because of the conflict between 'make my life' and 'let life make me' attitudes.

A single pursuit of any of these ideologies can again only induce chagrin. Perhaps it is a clarion call for us to use both the ideologies and not bent on following only one.Too much of anything is too bad..:)

Anonymous said...

Just read this... so true! (9 and 10, especially.) "Riveting disinterest" is a perfectly descriptive phrase. :p

Do you feel more mildly now, post-summer?

Idling in Top Gear said...

Under #8, "you're trying to direct your actions in a state where you know more (the future), sitting from a state where you know less(the present). If it works out at all, it has to be by chance."

Don't you mean "less" for the future and "more" for the present? I.e., shouldn't you swap the two?

Brilliant write-up. This is classic Quarter Life Crisis stuff. The solution to eliminating this angst is very easy to theorize but very hard to implement. Angst can not exist without ambition, so the solution is to eliminate ambition or even expectations of all sorts. I am not sure any educated man can do that very easily.

Mohan K.V said...

@Kaushal: Absolutely, everything in moderation, including moderation :-)

It's very nice that you brought up 'make my life' vs 'let life make me'. Allow me to pontificate. Of the hundreds of schools talking about Moksha and how to attain it, two stand in sharp relief in this context. One is called the 'Markata kishori nyaaya' and the other 'Marjaara kishori nyaaya'. 'Markata kishori nyaya' literally means 'Monkey-child procedure'. A baby monkey holds on very hard to its mother as it jumps around, and the hold is thought to be so strong that it is even immortalized in metaphor - 'kapi mushti' or 'monkey fist' means a very strong grip.

'Maarjaara kishori nyaaya' literally means 'Cat child procedure'. A kitten wouldn't even have its eyes open when its mother catches it by the scruff and jumps about.

I guess our little conundrum exists even in the quest for Supreme, and not just in our silly little career choices :-)

@Master S: Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

Post-summer's been very vague (but very happy), and I won't know why or how till I can finally digest it a few months from now. I'll definitely write something when I do :-) For now, I've decided to take a break from grad school after my Masters, and am livin' it up by unleashing long-suppressed anarchic instincts (read: blissful and meticulous apathy about classes, homework, exams, research, career, principle, foresight, judgement of my own or other peoples' choices, reflection, Right and Wrong).

@Idling in Top Gear: Thanks, I completely agree with the dastardly ambition-angst duo! And if I haven't mentioned it before, very nice username!

About #8, No, I meant that our bag of facts is bigger in the future than in the present. A decision that you will take today without knowing much will dictate your life for the next few years. You'll learn a lot in those years, and will certainly know 'more' than you did when you took the decision. It's almost like a really smart guy having to work under a dumb boss. Except that here, the dumb boss is yourself just a few years younger :-)

I see your point, though. I should probably write "Your choices today will direct your actions in a state where you WILL know more (the future), but you're making those choices when sitting in a state where you know less (the present)"

Kaushal.... said...

"One is called the 'Markata kishori nyaaya' and the other 'Marjaara kishori nyaaya'.". Hey, where did you read this?

Mohan K.V said...

@Kaushal: Ah, I see that the space where that comes from is orthogonal to what google can search. Most gratifying, metaphysics transcends worldly algorithms :)

I first heard that in a discourse long ago, then looked it up in a philosophy text... will try to find more details if you want.