Have you thought about (HYTA) whether critical thinking can make us unhappy?

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Thinking deeply is not an uncommon occurrence. But thinking correctly and logically is rare, and hardest when we need it most. After all, it’s difficult, and sometimes perilous, to break apart and scrutinise our belief systems and moral values. Some people may never put themselves back again.

Yet, I have always considered critical thinking to be the finest battalion of the mind, with skepticism and knowledge as the left and right vanguards, and logic as the sharpest point of the spear. Aligned in such a formation, we save ourselves from some very bad beliefs and make higher quality life decisions.

Without rocking the boat over to either Psychology or Philosophy, the unfortunate consequence of thinking in great logical detail appears to be best summarised by John Stuart Mill as “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” Those with a widely analytical and curious mind are more likely to feel the backlash of thinking deeply on many issues.

In a study of happiness that was conducted in a monastery, although the nuns were mostly insulated from the outside world, they were among some of the happiest people, and also lived longer lives. Did they know much about evolution or about the absurdities of their religion? I doubt it. A certain measure of ignorance buys one happiness. But was it worth it? I honestly don’t know.

The human mind is peculiar and very, very diverse. If you spend your entire life in the mental cage of a belief system, you will often never discover that you were being cheated of something more. I am sure we have met people who were evidently wrong but in their minds, they firmly believed they were in the right, and no amount of reasoning or evidence will sway them – but they are happy.

To make it worse, logic does not run hand in hand with emotions, and if it has to, almost always finds itself at the losing end. Emotions, especially those related to love, hate and power are some of our oldest and most powerful ancestral tools. The greater the conflict between logic and emotions, the more we douse ourselves in misery.

What then at the end? Is this a refutation of critical thinking? I don’t think so.

Even at the cost of happiness by degrees, thinking well outweighs ignorance. Too many bright human lives have been extinguished by really bad thinking. Whether you pin the donkey’s tail on religion, cults or conmen, there’s no doubt some element of good thinking is needed. Though there are (and were) days where emotions and memories get the better of me, I still like to, at least for now, continue seeing the world clearer.

Perhaps to some people, it’s a price that’s too high to pay.

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether critical thinking makes you unhappy?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the many sides of the same face?

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Wherever we go, we tot along an array of exquisitely engraved costume masks.

Fanned out on a flat surface, some of us would marvel at how many different, varied and storied identities we can effortlessly assume, all in a single day and all in a single seating.

All of us wear masks. That is not to be contested.

And we’ve developed situational masks to please, impress or intimidate certain types of people.

Even when we don’t feel that way, we smile and laugh anyway, because it would be impolite to do otherwise.

Sometimes, we applaud a performance not because we thought it was grand, but because everyone is doing it. It would be impolite not to. Peer approval matters.

When it’s someone who has a higher social standing than us, we give them more attention, more time and more of everything. They matter more.

But such performances, at least for some individuals, are tiring: An introvert pretending to be an extrovert quickly feels disconnected from himself; repeatedly impressing people with praises start to feel weary; and trying to fit a group’s artificial dynamics can burden us.

Those who cope well in such situations are often those who never really give too much thought to who they really are, nor do they see why they need to care.

Sometime ago, someone told me that this is how the social jigsaw pieces line up – it would be imprudent to go against it. Social needs, cliques and peer bonding are after all, very, very important.

And maybe there lies both the answer and the problem. We CAN be consistent, honest and authentic, but we are not willing to pay the price of being ostracised. That I can understand because social alienation can inflict a great deal of misery.

But on the side of the equation, is a loss of who we originally were. I honestly believe that among all the different masks we stash away, there is a part of us that’s genuinely consistent. It’s the face that’s under the mask.

It’s this side of us that we are usually most terrified to show. Because it’s vulnerable and individualistic. This side risks the greatest damage, and is the easiest to break, so for that, we have at our disposal, a set of masks.

It’s not to say that we should allow ourselves to be unguarded, or be willing to assume everyone is trustworthy. But the authentic side of us might exhibit honest opinions, blunt words and deep contemplation that we sometimes, really, really need.

And when we can authentically say, do and believe something regardless of the situation or people, it’s empowering and refreshing. How many of us I wonder, had to say things we never really meant?

It reminds me of a person who, in order to make friends, had to develop an entirely new mask – a chirpy, quasi-naive and socially outgoing self in order to fit in. Her more serious – somewhat philosophical self – had trouble resonating.

Perhaps at some point, there will a merger of our masks, and what’s left is an even average of all distributed personalities, but that I think is a little sad: to have something essential die inside us, and have no-one to mourn it.

Maybe there isn’t really a clear answer to be had here. Our masks are tools of survival, and who am I to denounce one method over the other?

But I had a taste of authenticity, and I know the price I pay for staying consistent across all points of my life, and I also know that what I say (either to get them to think more or defend a point) can be disagreeable to certain groups of people.

But it’s how I have lived my life for a long time, and even if it costs me power, money or social bonds, I simply don’t value these concepts the way most people do. I rather be closer to who I am – and that is still something I am learning.

What about you?

So have you thought (HYTA) about what your different masks are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) our self-inflicted miseries?

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Among the many curious truths about human life, this is perhaps the most unusual: we often, and knowingly, act in ways that will sow the seeds of unhappiness.

We incur consequences and inherit bad decisions not necessarily because we picked an obviously bad choice. But sometimes wisdom comes to us only much later – so we fail to see through the thinly veiled illusions of our immediate choices. And then we come to regret our decisions.

Ware, a nurse working in palliative care for many years, compiled the common regrets of patients, who on the precarious edge of death, gain the phenomenal clarity of vision.

The most common regret is listed first.

Regret (1): I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

For a great deal of people, most of our time is spent worrying about what others think of us. We are not sure if we are perceived as a good leader, wonder if our superior will grace us with a praise today or spend time trying spruce up a portfolio. We worry so much about something that we forget to think about ourselves.

It doesn’t stop there. We also pick the battlefield that makes us miserable. For example, we know leadership is a political game that’s often painful and sometimes morally bankrupt, but we choose to play in it anyway; we install ourselves in the company of people who provide us pleasure but limited room for self-growth; we sometimes squander relationships with careless abundance.

And after everything’s worn off, the haze of regret sets in.

Regret (2): I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

We run the hamster wheel because we have bills to pay, and whether we like our jobs or not, it can frequently become a numb mechanical routine. And time spent excessively working is dedication lost somewhere else.

Balance between work and life is not simply an allocation of hours. It’s a careful consideration of knowing what’s really, really important to us in our lives, and then giving up our time to pursue it. But do we really know what’s important in our lives?

It’s worth remembering that a company (or an organisation) is a construct, and though it always, always calls for our loyalties, we will never be rewarded in the same spirit of a wonderful, deep, heart to heart talk with someone we love. It is after all, a thing, not a being.

Regret (3): I wish I had the courage to express my feelings

Sometimes to maintain friendships, we say what our friends want to hear, even at the risk of being dishonest with ourselves. When we want to keep our business partners around, we suppress our feelings to keep an equal pacing with them. But what’s left of us?

Few of us have truly honest and spiritually uplifting conversations – the sort that warms the heart, expands our limited understanding non-judgementally, and graces the mind so joyously that short of the threat of starvation, we really just want to keep the conversation going. In a world where lying is the default position, an honest talk is a rare gem to have.

Somewhere out there, we have lost ourselves and have forgotten what it means to hold such an earnest conversation. Even with our parents and spouses, secrets are kept, feelings are played down and eyes are sometimes averted. And who can be blamed?

No one taught us that personal communication skills, thinking skills and raw honesty are the most important things to be in possession of. Yet ironically, we receive no grades for them – education provides little emphasis, and we are left short-changed for the entirety of our adult life.

It’s a pity that the recurring tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. Our miseries are by our own hands.

So have you thought (HYTA) about what your regrets are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) human hypocrisy? (Panama papers leak)

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The Panama papers is one of the biggest leaks in recent history. Implicating many individuals and corporations in an extensive (and robust) web of deceit, corruption and deliberate falsehoods, it also arms us with sufficient ammunition to be pessimistic about our moral progress. More than anything, it is also a revelation that shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone: the rich and powerful continue to exploit the social and financial system, even while they pretend to gallop around on unicorns with a moral stick of righteousness.

Were it merely the fault of your typical, obnoxiously unpleasant, smarmy-faced politicians, the case would end here. The problem with the Panama implications are that they explicitly involve head of states both past and present, well-liked celebrities and ‘good’ politicians. Turns out all of them were laundering money using Panama as a tax haven so they could avoid their countries’ own taxes. And the level of hypocrisy that flies in everyone’s faces is absolutely scathing.

The close relatives of China’s president were implicated in illicit money laundering through bogus companies. On its own, it probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. However, when you consider the communist’s party’s key tenet (constantly preached ad nauseam) of not abusing one’s power for selfish privileges AND when you realise that the president himself executed an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the executions and jailings of many corrupt officers, you can only derisively laugh at the level of phoniness that surrounds their ‘sense of moral and civil justice’.

China’s first reaction to the Panama papers was an absolute embargo and censorship of the press and social media. No investigation has been done, no explanations given, just a forceful and insistent silence of “…or else”. Still, the focus shouldn’t be entirely on China even though its dictatorial approach is worth reams of criticisms: Iceland’s prime minister has resigned from the fallout; Jackie Chan and Simon Cowell are left back-pedalling; and Russia’s trying (unconvincingly) to dispute the claim. The list of casualties will be going on for a while.

And what tops it all is that this Panamian law firm is only the forth largest corporate listing. It’s highly likely that the larger firms are where American elites (among others) stash away all their money and commit maximum tax evasion. Whatever the case, it’s clear that none of the moral rules you learned in school or acquired through philosophical reflection apply. None of the moral tenets of Confucius or Lao Zi got through to the Chinese Communist Party, nor did the prestigious qualifications of the British prime minister give him pause on the fraud he was committing.

But as I said earlier, though the initial reaction for most fall between shock and outrage, for me at least, it’s par for the course. Those in power often elevate themselves above the normal rules that govern an individual. A number of years ago, I sat down for a school meeting involving the principal and heads. One of the heads put forward a proposal to distort statistical facts and exploit a loophole for district benefits. Not a single person in authority disagreed. It was merely surmised as acceptable on the grounds of “every other school is doing it so it’s OK for us to do so”. The irony that we were all teachers who taught moral education to students was not lost on me.

For what it’s worth, the ordinary folks will always have to play by the rules. We will pay our taxes, struggle to make ends meet and grapple with the challenges of society. The rich on the other hand, usually coast above conventional rules, or know enough to game (or brick) the system. The Panama papers revelation changes nothing.

So have you thought (HYTA) about human hypocrisy?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the weaknesses of our strengths?

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All too easily, if given a clipboard and pen, we would be able to effortlessly label our strengths and weaknesses in appreciable detail – We believe they are two distinct categories with minimal overlap.

Schools and workplaces alike, through a great deal of leadership camps and corporate training, emphasise strengths as desirable and weaknesses as compulsory areas of change – strengths are good, weaknesses not so much.

It’s a common refrain that is too easy to mistake as everyday truth. Instead, our strengths have parallel weaknesses, and in different situations, they can cut deeply both ways, so it’s important we learn to recognise the weaknesses of our strengths.

Consider Richard Fyneman, a brilliant American theoretical physicist, often admired for his immense dedication and unbridled zest for self-discovery. Yet his same virtues were also grounds for divorce with his second wife, Mary Louise Bell, who stated that:

“He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

What was initially perceived as advantageous to have in a spouse, quickly became a difficult to overlook flaw that bordered on self-obsession – our towering strengths conceal long, dark shadows of weaknesses.

The converse is also true. Someone’s bossy and pushy nature is easy to dismiss as a character flaw, but in a different person’s presence, it may be suppressed or highly endearing.

It is impossible to have a strength without its corresponding weakness; Virtues are complemented by vices; perfection with flaw. Knowing this brings us a measure of calm: we will forever remain imperfect, vulnerable and incomplete.

Perhaps then, like a moth flitting towards a gentle flame, we will always be deeply drawn towards those whose strengths and weaknesses are so complementary as to make us an almost perfect whole. We become real then.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) the weaknesses of your strengths?