Have you thought about (HYTA) why being needed is all that matters?

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         If there is something certain communities and studies / observations can teach us, it is that happiness (and to an extent, life satisfaction) isn’t as complicated as it is sometimes made out to be. What we want, even if this is not expressed consciously, can be found in our motivations, fantasies and the people we are with – we yearn to be needed, to feel like we matter a lot to someone. And if we should at any point feel that our existence is negligible, like a candle that can be easily put out and forgotten, it begins to eat away at us until we are consumed by self-loathing and misery.

         Being needed gives us a sense of self-importance, that what we do, and how our lives unfold matter to someone. It means we are not just a nameless face among a sea of faces, not another human indistinguishable from other bodies, that we aren’t just another cog and gear to be casually replaced and discarded at whim. Knowing we are somewhat and somehow different, that we possess a signature unique only to us, is the primary motivation behind most, if not everything we do. And for that, it feels great when others cannot function well (or at all) without our presence. It’s selfish, egoistical but secretly desired.

         Shakespeare was on to something when he wrote Romeo & Juliet. Though the play remains a wonderful classic in its own right, and while some of its themes and lines are somewhat cringe-worthy in a modern interpretation, the underlying fantasy of two lovers who cannot live without the other comes surprisingly close to explaining what we really want (as well as romantic love): the happiness and reassurance of having someone in our life who is vitally dependent on our existence so much so that in return, we are also desperately in want of them. While love is the strongest expression of needing and being needed, milder variations can be found as the underlying basis of our many friendships and communities.

         This also explains how we find meaning and emotional attachment in careers. To be stuck in a job doing the same paperwork over and over without any acknowledgement is to quickly fall into lapses of repetition. However, knowing that our superiors depend on us for something purposeful, or that the company we are employed at cannot easily let us go because a replacement is difficult to come about gives us a strong (maybe sadistic) measure of pride. No one can do what I do. My contributions matter. These are what we tell ourselves in secret, and take quiet delight at being better and more. It also serves as an impetus to go beyond, and most companies (Apple, Google etc) nowadays understand that so they go the extra mile to make their employees feel like they matter.

         But more importantly, being greatly needed by someone or something simply makes us feel valuable, the likes of which is difficult to accurately express in words. Perhaps if we could borrow from The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince, the more profound description would be that we feel real and significant. If there is one thing worse than being neglected, it’s knowing that we are not needed.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) why being needed is all that matters?

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) how comparisons affect who we are?

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         It’s often been said that the secret to happiness and inner peace starts with a simple truth: Learn to be satisfied with what you have, look downwards instead of upwards. The aphorism speaks loudly of the human tendency to compare anything and everything. It is from this abyss of the mind that gossip, workplace politics, personal dissatisfaction as well as many other minor and major ills are birthed. Imagine being at a reunion dinner where every attending relative from left to right occupies the center stage to brag about their accomplishments. Perhaps today your cousin made his first million among many, or the sister-in-law goes through with another successful investment. And if you are your average street hawker who is happy enough to just make ends meet, it’s hard to not walk out feeling like the person who just got dropped hard from a major league team. And just like that, life becomes so much harder to contend with.

         Allowing our mind free reign to make all sorts of unrestrained comparisons, whether they make us feel better or worse, will quickly sicken the self. For example, it’s well-documented that extensive use of social media is more likely to make us unhappy because people only post about the good things going on in their lives. It gives an unfair representation of a seemingly perfect life beyond our ability to attain – and this begets admiration and jealousy. It also creates wants and desires that would otherwise not have existed. Knowing this person has a new, shiny gadget beyond your budget, that your friend appears to be having more fun with other people than with you, or that someone has a much larger (and more successful) social circle, can quickly add up to a sense of what seems to be the unfairness of life.

         Essena O’Neill, who easily amassed more than half a million Instagram followers, many of them teenagers like herself, is a firm reminder that comparisons can eventually get the better of a person. Often portrayed as having the perfect figure, she was the envy of her very young followers who looked to her as the starting point of a normal body. It created unrealistic expectations, festered an over-emphasis on physical beauty, and eventually, O’Neill could not keep up with the facade. She tearfully admitted that her photos were ‘contrived perfection made to get attention’ and that many seemingly casual shots involved strategic posing, expert makeup and were retaken up to a hundred times before editing. O’Neill compared herself upwards with the likes of unhealthy perfection pursued by supermodels, and likewise her followers only enviously saw someone with a better body than them.

         Millionaires are no different. USB’s recent survey revealed that the very rich are often dissatisfied with the money they have. While a million dollars is enough to last a few lifetimes if keeping to a modest and humble lifestyle, the wealthy elites do not align themselves with the ordinary folks. They look at those higher up in asset worth and feel pressure and misery trying to scale the unending ladder. In a world where most of us live better than ancient kings (which ancient royalty had a Nintendo Switch or even a television?), happiness still remains elusive because we don’t learn to be satisfied with our lot, but instead always aim higher. It’s also unhelpful that advertisements only unconsciously create artificial needs that we otherwise do not require. In what way is the newest smartphone or Playstation 4 necessary for survival? But because others have it, so too must we possess it. There’s a sort of sad predictability to human behaviour, and also why companies are willing to invest heavily in advertising.

         While comparisons do generate the competition needed to force innovation and self-improvement, it also leads to an obsessive preoccupation with doing better or having more, and this often comes at the expense of family, the self and ethics. Those who keep running on the hamster wheel while many other important commitments burn down by the side often stop a little too late, and for that, just as there are countless such stories of regret, there are also as many newcomers eager to take the honorary mantle of running on said wheel , until they too are burned. From society’s point of view, comparisons are not just encouraged, but also stoked to become intense competition. Whether it’s the extreme pressure of the Korean / Chinese education system or working yourself to death in Japan (known as 過労死 Karōshi), it’s economically beneficial for the government, even as you self-destruct your personal relationships and morality.

         Comparisons also exist in areas we don’t expect. Religious people compare one faith to another to feel more secure in their absurd fairy-tales. By pointing out the shortcomings of another faith while unconsciously failing to notice the same nonsense that occupy the entirety of one’s own holy book is a good way to feel confident about your belief. Workplace gossip also becomes a place to make yourself feel better by disparaging your opponents even though you don’t have enough information on hand to support your hypothesis. It’s unfortunate that when we do compare, which is numerous and repeated, they are often done in ways that are unintelligent or unhelpful for self-improvement.

         Even relationships are not spared. We base our immediate decisions and judgements by looking back at our very first experiences. In an interview, one woman said that after having gone through multiple failed romances that ended in abuse or shaming, she didn’t really care for appearances, power or money. She just wanted a partner who would love her wholesomely and make her feel important. On the other hand, if our first romantic tangle was with someone attentive, kind and warm, we have a tendency to always look back at that first experience and wonder why we don’t receive the same sort of feeling or care as we used to, and this can stifle future romances. Potential romantic interests may feel that they can’t live up to an impossible benchmark. Is that a bad thing? It’s hard to say, and even if you knew your mind was making comparisons, it’s difficult to filter out memories or to put aside the good and the bad.

         Ultimately, we are hardwired to compare, and it takes both wisdom and a great deal of mistakes to unlearn this behaviour. If tempered with rationality and clear thinking, we can still look upwards without feeling like we are missing something but it’s a feat that’s not easy to pull off. In the worst case scenario, there’s always the choice of walking out of the room, foregoing a career, or giving up a friendship.

          So, have you thought about (HYTA) how comparisons affect who we are?

        

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) why it is better to rely on ourselves than on others?

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        Much has been said about the holy trifecta of human interactions: family, friendship and love are essential needs we cannot do without. Two is always better than one, and even the most closeted person is still minimally reliant on others around him. We are hardwired that way, and though we can’t completely give up human interactions, is there anything wrong with trusting ourselves more than we trust others, or choosing to armor ourselves against our lovers and friends?

         It’s cathartic – perhaps even therapeutic – to confide in others, to open up fully to a significant other, and to invest more trust in them than we do to ourselves. Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit makes a compelling argument in favour of loving (and being loved) unconditionally, with a simple but evocative story on the joy of being truly believed in by someone such that no matter how we change, they will always stay around with us. But the story misses out a vital point: the more vulnerable you are to a person, the more keenly the blade cuts when they disappoint or hurt us, intentional or not.

         In HBO’s superlative television series, The Sopranos, long time mafia captain turned boss Tony Soprano, intricately (and manipulatively) controls everyone around him so that no individual can claim to know him well: his wife only knows the bare minimum and is merely a tool for reproduction; his mistresses are for pleasure and enjoyment but he never confides in them; his friends and remaining family members see different sides of his masks without ever getting a full picture on him; and his mafia captains / thugs that he is surrounded with can never figure out what he’s thinking so they are always second guessing him. Even if everyone came together, no one truly knew what Tony Soprano would do next.

         To many, this may seem pathological, senseless and almost criminal to build up such a deceptive portfolio. However, this level of guard and detail meant that when Tony’s wife wanted a divorce, she had little to use against him, and when certain members of his mafia conspired against him, he was always many steps ahead of them. It’s not that Tony is shrewd (that’s also true of him) but rather he simply avoids the trap of falling too deeply into a friendship or relationship. After all, isn’t the start of anything always pleasurable and memorable? But when other things come into fray, perhaps money, work or power, disappointments and sneak attacks can become par for the course. Better to expect injury than to hope for joy. That way, you are immunised if people do worse, and when they do better, it’s just a minor bonus.

         When you rely on yourself more, you are less likely to be affected by those around you. The existence of others, or lack thereof, is of no importance. What matters is your own fulfillment and the tending to of your own needs – something that’s surprisingly easy to see to. There’s a price to be paid for such a choice, and it denies us of something humane, and though this can quickly become dysfunctional as seen in Tony’s repeated dependency on a psychologist, when all is said and done, do we not ultimately answer only to ourselves?

So, have you thought about (HYTA) why it is better to rely on ourselves than on others?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the value of an apology?

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          Apologising is the hardest and easiest thing to do. Those who need it the most often do not receive it, and those who need it the least find themselves in surfeit. When did saying sorry lose much of its original form and meaning? Depending on the situation and the mode of expression, it can mean anywhere from thank you, an unwelcome sarcasm or a pointless affix to a statement. Sadly, most modern apologies are liable to fall into the latter category – just casual, meaningless words with little followup. They have become utterances we deftly know when to use, but don’t know how to see it through.

          For an apology to have value, it must – like all other words with good intentions – be used sparingly, with the awareness that each repeated use is subjected to steep diminishing returns, and that mindless repetition only speaks more about our character flaws than its intended use for humility and contrition. This is something the Japanese know well. The late Nintendo CEO Satoru Iawata didn’t just give a public apology for the profit slump of 2013. He also gave a full bow, explained and took responsibility, but more importantly, he announced he would slash his pay by half for his failure.

          Unlike his Western counterparts, Iawata wasn’t just willing to put up with public humiliation and shaming, he made sure that the gravity of his apology was commensurate with the action(s) he took. He may only have apologised once, but it was a heartfelt apology, and even those who weren’t its targeted recipients could also commiserate with him. And in comparison, how many of us truly mean our apologies to those we give it to? The tendency to casually say we are sorry in any and every situation has reduced its intended value to that of a fast food voucher.

          And a genuine apology is more than the sum of its part. It’s not something you hold up a checklist for and proclaim grand promises. Sincere apologies are discreet and subtle, and assume the person you truly mean it for will be able to arrive at his own independent judgement without in-your-face reminders. Saying we are sorry is also not about the selfishness of wanting to feel less self-guilt, but wanting to make proper amends. To that end, an apology is never fully over until the other party has decided to let us off the hook. 

          Used to full effect, a single apology can completely overturn a difficult situation, heal a damaged relationship, and even make things better than they were before. But it’s only as powerful as the sincerity of its user. Everyone knows the words that need to be said, but how many know what needs to be done? Saying sorry isn’t a tediously solemn affair. It’s a remarkable chance to improve ourselves and show that something or someone is important.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) the value of an apology?

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) why we cheat on our spouse and loved ones?

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           Looking at the spectacle of present-day marriages, you did never know that monogamy (sometimes also thought of as just being faithful towards someone we are in love with) was the new kid on the block. Between solemn marriage vows, typical on-screen romances, and government-sponsored sexuality education on the emphasis of loyalty towards the family unit, it’s become a little too easy to forget our dirty, cheating past. We arrogantly compare our monogamous lifestyle with that of birds, citing how some avian species exhibit tendencies to stay with the same life partner, which sorry to say, turns out even they cheat when the other partner is not looking. Cheating is apparently quite common in human relationships, the extent of which often boils down to whether said affair is discovered or not.

           Einstein himself also begrudgingly admitted that nothing in the human species was built for monogamy or sexual faithfulness. In a June 1953 letter to a female friend, he told her not to be too upset that her husband was having an affair. This was spoken out of personal experience as the great scientist himself was serially unfaithful. He cheated on his first wife, married his mistress who was also his cousin, and still had affairs with other women on the sly. While most of us would take a serious view on such shady behaviour, Einstein himself merely considered these affairs as non-serious and just flings typical of an European gentlemen. In what would perhaps be the most controversial advice in the human history of marriage counselling, he went on to write that a man shouldn’t be forced to stay monogamous, that it would be a ‘bitter fruit’ for all involved. But Einstein was later willing to concede that cheating had its problems when he expressed admiration for his best friend who remained with one woman his entire life.

           Has much changed since Einstein’s time? It’s hard to say. As with all matters related to love and sexuality, it’s difficult to statistically profile anything concrete. But there have been some loud headlines. In a controversial interview carried out by a study several years back, one respondent said that he would always cheat every time he left for a business trip. He had a loving wife and a great family but he enjoyed his affairs on the side, and couldn’t be persuaded to think otherwise. In more recent times, a Frenchman sued Uber, whose app’s malfunctioning features accidentally leaked the locations of where he sneaked off to have his affairs, causing his marriage to end. While it’s difficult and dangerous to extrapolate too much from such news fodder, it’s probably reasonably safe to assume that cheating still happens with some regularity: the illicit affairs of celebrities and politicians continue to serve as click-bait for gossip-mongers.

           And while the above narratives may lead one to think that men are the gender most likely to cheat, general statistics seem to suggest that both genders are equally likely to be unfaithful. So far, it seems that genuinely staying true to a person (as opposed to hoping your affairs never get discovered) is in itself nothing short of an incredible human feat. Is promiscuity the result of an uncontrollable part of human behaviour or do people cheat because they feel they didn’t marry the right person? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Much of our default attitude towards how love ought to be (as well as how much it completes us) likely comes down to our genes, what we observe from our parents during childhood, and the prevailing attitude in society. Our tendencies to cheat are inversely proportional to the amount of fulfillment we derive out of the relationship, and here, nothing is more important than the quality of communication – because talking about an issue defines a goal post. If commitment and dedication are the default cornerstones that both partners can promise to work on sustaining, it makes clear the direction of the relationship, as well as the consequences.

           However, as observed by a number of psychologists, most cases of cheating are often the result of an impulse built up over time rather than a meticulous plan executed from the start. It may perhaps begin with a simple flirt with a colleague, or what appears to be a regular one on one lunch, or a willingness to be more intimate than appropriately allowed, but such behaviour can quickly escalate, and can cause us to forget our commitment(s) towards our relationship. Consequently, the heart and mind falters, and duties and promises can be easily forgotten. For example, someone who is already spoken for, but behaves suggestively and coyly is going to find it easy to accidentally end up with a regrettable mistake. Our conscious and unconscious actions, whether we intend them to be so, signal sexual availability or interest, and the more we act on our capriciousness, the more likely we are to inadvertently cheat. And even if nothing happens, the potential fallout of misunderstandings and jealousy will often jeopardise an existing relationship.

           And of course, some of us cheat because the thrill of lying and remaining undetected is in itself a great dopamine rush, the same sort of excitement that allows extreme sport enthusiasts to repeatedly put their lives at risk. And there are those who receive a perverse pleasure in knowing that they are able to steal someone away from what seems to be a perfect and impregnable relationship. And maybe others simply enjoy dancing close to the fire, if only to spite their partners and make themselves seem more desirable. Whatever the reasons, human behaviour is sufficiently complex to allow for many deviations and computations, and much of human sexuality is dark, foreboding and variegated. While cheating seems commonplace, it’s not an excuse to give ourselves a free pass. It breaches trust, reduces intimacy and moves us away in pursuit of the truth. If you can lie to your significant other, then you can lie to anyone, including yourself. And is there not something wretched about living such an incomplete life?

So have you thought about (HYTA) why we cheat on our spouses and loved ones?

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) what is the meaning of life?

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         The meaning of life, whatever that may be, faces a curious conundrum. Say that it has already been determined, and we bemoan our immutable state of affairs, that our lives can have no deviation from what the fates have in store for us, that the cards in our preassigned deck are stacked against us, or that the dice having been already cast, makes us prisoners of the path we must walk. But conversely, if told that life is ultimately meaningless, that in the grand scheme of it all, we are so insignificant and unimportant that we have virtually no influence on the cosmos, then suddenly, there’s a sort of desperate void in everything we do. Why do anything when race, identity and consciousness are but concepts that on the highest level, have next to no impact on the universe?

         So how to answer the question? The only legitimately honest answer is the latter. Life has no ultimate meaning, except for a few directives that are already bestowed on us: to survive and reproduce. Only humans have evolved a brain that allows for sufficient abstraction such that unlike lesser animals, we cannot simply be contented with merely surviving. We question who we are and why we are here, and the same brain that helps us arrive at these answers can also be persuaded to end its existence. What we do today is not different from what we used to do in the distant past. We occupy ourselves with work and play, marry or stay single, start a family or help look after one, and then ultimately, we die believing we’ve achieved something, and that someone will benefit from our legacy. It’s a repetitive cycle repeated for eons, and will be repeated in the far future.  Exactly what are we supposed to get out of life then?

         This is why man had to invent religion, of which each faith has its own origin story, so that some kind of meaning is given for each young life to aspire towards. We are told that a benevolent (or capricious) creator oversees us, that we are fulfilling a part of his grand plans and that he (or they) care for our mortal well-being. But we didn’t stop here. We’ve also invented various cultural icons – pledges of allegiances, school songs, philosophies and arts – to make us believe we are invested in a world that is orderly and that answers to our needs (it doesn’t). Whether you go to Japan, Africa or Iceland, each country has created its own superstition, myths and symbols, and despite being truly nonsense, these absurdities give their people a sense of meaning and comfort, and a reason to be proud of their traditions.

         It’s why orientation, icebreakers and bonding camps are so important. They give a sense of belonging and purpose where none initially exists, and to cunningly influence (by peer pressure) the newcomers to form new belief systems about the place they are in and how it all ties into their self-worth. We want to feel that we belong to something because the alternative – realising that there’s nothing out there – is far scarier. Our social structure is artificially built from start to end to infuse meaning into our lives. The compulsory education pathway comprises of targets and goals set for us by the government, and further down, the workforce is deliberately calibrated to give a sense of career progression. You eventually move up the ranks, and are often encouraged to keep climbing the ladder. Likewise, money is in itself only a piece of paper, but society chooses to give it value and meaning, and so hard cash can become tied to our meaning of life. Everything’s as deliberate and as false as it gets but there’s no denying its effectiveness or necessity.

         And even the jobs and hobbies we call meaningful are often nothing but clever disguises. A policeman may take great pride in his job and see it as a respectful duty, but what he fails to sadly realise is that it is the criminals who give his job (and his life) meaning. For the policeman to be happy, he must hope for the criminals to commit all manners of atrocities so that only when he locks them up, he can feel a swell of satisfaction. Likewise, a doctor must depend on all manners of debilitating diseases and infections that call for his expertise so that his job is meaningful. People must die, must fall sick and suffer so that what he does has purpose. Similarly, a general who lives in a world without war is probably better off dead. There would be no soldiers to train and bully, no recruits to send off to die and no missiles to be fired. He is as useful as the fifth wheel on a wagon.

         Though there’s nothing inherently meaningful in anything we do, and while we are often guilty of mindlessly moving from one distraction to the next, we do get to author much of our lives. We have enough freedom and capacity of thought to direct the quality of life we wish to lead. And honestly? There’s not much we must possess to lead fulfilling lives. Our genuine needs are simple, but it’s modernity, advertisements and repeated comparisons that cause our dissatisfaction. Life can be meaningful as long as there’s at least one person we can always respond deeply to, a reasonable job that doesn’t go against our principles and a place to return. After all, haven’t the best stories always been the simple ones?

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what the meaning of life is?

Have you thought about (HYTA) which friendships are worth investing in?

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         A few weeks ago, someone important to me made a surprisingly shrewd observation: Which friends are worth keeping around? And who among them are worth investing more time in? In the economy of time, every action comes at a cost and each decision an expensive choice. Time spent with one person is less time spent with someone possibly more significant, and even less to be had for our own goals and desires. 

         The answer will first depend on our expectations of friendships. Some of us have very little, if any, expectation of friendships – a point I am reminded of by a colleague who once remarked cynically that there’s no one you can truly trust and you should expect every person to be nice or unpleasant according to whatever is most convenient for them. Furthermore, it’s sometimes hard to trust ourselves. Our desires are frequently capricious and our ability to accurately recall events is laughably bad. It’s kind of difficult to broach the topic of trusting friends when it’s doubtful if we can even trust ourselves.

         And even if we do have loftier expectations of friendships, exactly what is it that separates an old friend from a good friend, or even a best friend? These at first glance, appear to be arbitrary labels that seem to connote something better than a mere friend, but do they really mean anything? It’s hard to say. Old friends may just be a term you throw around as casually as guys are quick to call each other buddies or bros. In fact, there’s something irredeemably offensive about someone you’ve only known for a while and who’s quick to put arms around you and declare you a brother. Even if you have known someone for a long time and worked together, it’s not necessarily representative of a great friendship.

         So the first course of action is determining exactly what you want to get out of friendships. Should they be a matter of convenient alliance? To fulfill a temporary social need and easily expended in times of need and dropped whenever you wish? Or a permanent fixture you can always turn to no matter which stage of your life you are at? Some consider the occasional shopping trip to be a more than adequate way of maintaining a friendship while others may necessitate long hours of deep talk and confiding in to count as any meaningful interaction. Knowing what we clearly expect makes it easier to keep and cut friends in our lives.

         Yet, if Psychology has anything to say about friendships, it would be that as much as we wish for a degree of permanence to them, they generally do not last. Because our expectations and definition of friendship waxes and wanes according to where we are in life. For example, friendships often take a backseat to romantic relationships – an unfortunate corollary often exploited to comedic effect as ‘bros before hoes’. In a 2010 Oxford university study, it was observed that falling in love comes at the cost of two or more close friends. Because there’s only so many social connections we can have at a given point and only so much socialising we can handle before we become overwhelmed, close friends have to be set aside for someone we love. It’s less of economics and more of human limits.

         Similarly, married couples generally have fewer friends than singles, and are far less dependent on friendships. It’s not to say marriage cancels out friendships, but often, if we fall in love and marry the right person, we are in effect, marrying our soul mate and our best friend. And those who are in a deeply fulfilling marriage where their partner attentively attends to almost all their needs will find little desire to expect anything more from friendships. And even if such a friendship can be maintained, it would now be of a lower priority than it used to be. This doesn’t mean that a married life is better than being single. All it means is that friendships represents something very different to someone single (and maybe doesn’t intend to marry) as opposed to someone who is already deeply bonded to a life partner.

         Furthermore, friendships often have great difficulty surviving changes in personalities and beliefs. A great friend we have now that’s terrific to have for school projects and training matches may quickly become an unscrupulous businessperson on entering the workforce; when we enter or exit religion, we may find many of our friends keeping a wary distance, especially if we choose to forego a common faith; or if we decide to champion certain political positions or controversial causes, it may cause a deep rift with friends who stand in opposition to our choices. A friendship that can survive these difficult obstacles may not survive future ones. And a friendship that survives it all may still not necessarily be a meaningful one. 

         In the end, maybe friendships are nothing more than a strategic alliance. They are just personal connections to get you a job, who will write you a recommendation or be an additional numeral to swell your social ego. It’s not important whether they are good, best or great as long as each have a distinct role to play and a benefit for yourself. Friends meet a present need, but should not be expected to fulfill a future want. So which friend(s) should we invest in? If we are cynical and practical, then all of them. If we are merely practical, then some of them. If we are just cynical, we should invest in ourselves first, and pick the person who repeatedly gives us a meaningful return for every little thing we do for him or her.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) which friendships are worth investing in?