Thursday, February 23, 2006

The law of conservation of happiness

Long long ago when I was young, I once sat under a guava tree in our family garden for an extended period of time. I was emulating the famous British scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, hoping to gain some inspiration from a falling guava. That day was special for me. I had just decided on my future profession. I was gonna be a scientist and invent stuff. However, I had also realized that being a child, I did not yet possess the necessary skills a scientist would require in order to be able to practice his craft with a reasonable degree of competence. For example, I was still having problems with the multiplication table of 12. And so, my recourse had been to avail myself of the one thing freely available to anyone, even a child, that might help my transformation into a scientist of repute. Inspiration. Inspiration which, the legend of Sir Isaac Newton kept reminding us, could be obtained by sitting under an apple tree and waiting for fruit to fall off.

That was the reason why I found myself hunkered down at the base of the guava tree at 2:00 in the afternoon, since that was the only tree in our garden from which fruit had been known to fall off, (we had coconut trees as well but those are dangerous things to sit under) swatting those nasty red ants that were crawling up through a hole in the ground, waiting for gravity to take effect and bring me the inspiration I so sorely needed. Time passed by. People grew older. Somewhere in the world living creatures gave birth to their young and died. Food was digested, hair grew whiter and a million children were given a million nicknames that would stay on and haunt them throughout their lives.

But guavas refused to fall. Despondency crept over me. I was sad. Being a scientist was turning out to be a hard gig. My first order of business after turning into a full-fledged scientist, I decided, would be to invent a fast-forward button for life.

And then out fell a nice ripe greenish yellow guava. I was overjoyed. I had taken the first step towards becoming a scientist. I waited for inspiration. And then, I was inspired.

Why was I so overjoyed, I asked myself, over the mere incident of a falling guava? Maybe it had something to do with the vast ocean of sadness caused by the lack of falling guavas that I had been wallowing in merely 5 minutes earlier. And it was then that I realized that the guava had performed the task it was meant to do, and bestowed upon me a moment of enlightenment. I had formulated the law of conservation of happiness.

The law of conservation of happiness goes as follows : "Happiness cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred through space and time. The total amount of happiness in the universe remains constant."

Let me illustrate my thesis using a case study. It was a saturday and me and my wife were planning on travelling into Center City, Philadelphia by train to spend the day browsing the Museum of Art. As is to be expected, we left our apartment a mere 2 minutes before the scheduled departure of the train and pulled into the station just as the train pulled away. Sadness ensued. All, however, was not lost. There was another train to Philadelphia leaving from another station in 15 minutes. This station was about 5 miles away.

So we got into our cars and drove to this other train station. I had no idea as to its location. We realized that we were going to be late for this train as well. The next train, in case we missed this one, was in an hour. I was panicking. The total happiness content of my person reduced some more. After making some wrong turns and further depleting our happiness level, we finally found the station with the train standing by, ready to depart. We had made it barely in time.

Once we were comfortably ensconced inside the train, I realized that I was feeling tremendously exhilarated. It was strange, because all we had done was to catch a train. The happiness bouncing around inside my body was entirely disproportional to the reason behind it. But here's the point. The extra happiness I now possessed was that which had been depleted from the period before we boarded the train, when we had been feeling so low. Happiness hadn't been created, it had been transferred from pre-boarding time to post-boarding time.

Some of you might say this theory is bogus, and you might give me an example to contradict my claims. Hey, you might say, what about the boundless fields of joy your heart leaps through when you win the lottery? You were happy even before winning the lottery, so where did that extra happiness come from?

To which I would reply, that's easy enough. It came from the depleted happiness level of the millions of people who had purchased tickets for the same lottery who didn't win and instead, had to watch you win. In fact, this principle can be generalized to apply anywhere happiness is created, apparently out of thin air. As a rule of thumb, whenever one's happiness level gets a boost, it is compensated in an equal proportion by the numerous people who experience sorrow due to their begrudging of your windfall.

Thus, the thesis stands. Happiness can be transferred from one period of time to another, or from one location to another. However, it cannot be created. The total amount of happiness in the world remains constant.


zambezi said...

fucking whack job. Where the hell do you get all these ideas from?

gawker said...

That's like asking a rap artist where he got the line "I just want a woo woo" from. It's all in here. I'm pointing to my heart.

Anonymous said...

my god. u need to work. i don't look this way for a week or two and my god what have u done here.
But yeah i must admit that was a very cute post. And, Lies ! As far as i can stretch my memory i always saw u sit atop the rubber tree in ur garden !! (least u kept telling the naive me it was a rubber tree)

gawker said...

I work hard and I play hard. Yes, I used to sit on the rubber tree also. It really was a rubber tree, I even made rubber out of it.

Abi said...

Dude, are you sure your tree wasn't a bodhi?

If it was, and if it did plonk a guava on your head, it is even more of a miracle ...

On a serious note, research shows that each person has a 'set point' for happiness. One may go through occasional moments of exhilaration or sad moods, but their effects wear off with time, and one returns to one's set point. For whatever it was worth ...

Anurag said...

So, you are the person responsible for me feeling sad, suddenly and for no reason at all, on Saturday night! Damn you, gawker, damn you for being able to catch the frigging train. I had to spend money on an anti-depressant!

At the same time, the theory is very cool. Does it, however, mean that since there are more and more of us on this planet, we are all getting sadder, slowly and surely? Or is a colony of ants in the jungles of Maharshtra getting unusually sad suddenly? Maybe we have been able to tap into a black hole somewhere in the universe? Nothing escapes from it, except happiness, maybe?

Anonymous said...

Must have been a long train ride...

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Gawker
I don't beleive this at all. I think, through cooperation, people can be much better off, and much happier, than they would have been otherwise. Happiness can be destroyed very easily with really bad policy. I believe that most of those communist nations were largely cheerless places. North Korean today is not a happy place. And its not like all that happiness is in some bank collecting interest for that day when all the North Koreans are released from their prison. They just missed the happiness train and no other train is coming.

Harini Sridharan said...

Interesting thought :). I have at one point imagined that there was probably a "law of conservation of work hours" : when one day I stay back late at work, there is someone, somewhere who is getting off earlier than usual that day :p - this is frivolous, of course.
But with regards to your train travel case study, here is an explanation for why happiness is more pronounced when it comes as a respite from a long period of distress. Taken from an interesting article in the January issue of TIME magazine :-

"... the overall feeling about an experience is particularly influenced by the emotional high and low points and by how it ends. So, if you were to randomly beep someone on vacation in Italy, you might catch that person waiting furiously for a slow-moving waiter to take an order or grousing about the high cost of the pottery. But if you ask when it's over, "How was the vacation in Italy?", the average person remembers the peak moments and how he or she felt at the end of the trip.

The power of endings has been demonstrated in some remarkable experiments by Kahneman. One such study involved people undergoing a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable procedure in which a flexible scope is moved through the colon. While a control group had the standard procedure, half the subjects endured an extra 60 seconds during which the scope was held stationary; movement of the scope is typically the source of the discomfort. It turned out that members of the group that had the somewhat longer procedure with a benign ending found it less unpleasant than the control group, and they were more willing to have a repeat colonoscopy."

Sorry for the lengthy post :).

gawker said...

patrix : you are welcome heh

abi : Right, and the sum of the deviation from that set point is always equal to 0 according to my theory.

anurag : I think overpopulation is okay, as long as there will always be people worse off than we are, that compensates in our happiness level.

anjali : That was an astute observation heh.

Michael : I think a lot of Americans' happiness stems from the fact that they see themselves as being better off that people in most areas of the world. That means happiness, in effect, has been transferred from North Korea to the US.

harini : Great comment, I now actually do feel like a scientist.

"the overall feeling about an experience is particularly influenced by the emotional high and low points and by how it ends."

I agree entirely. And the colonoscopy anecdote just sent a shiver through my prostate. Gulp.

1diot said...

Michael Higgins : that theory is not incorrect at all. The reason you are frustated at this theory is coz gawker drew some happiness from this, along with many others...unfortunately u fall in the bracket of people from who the likes of gawker got theirs!
Michael, am just pulling your legs!:)
Gawker: i like the theory. Unlike Slime, i didnt know u had a rubber tree either...or maybe my memory has depleted... has yours risen?

1diot said...

Man u have some blog going... i appreciate it.
its people like u who inspire me in thinking that one day i can resume blogging...and become one like u!

Kowshic said...

Dude, look at this!

You're ahead of your "peers" man!

Anonymous said...

If happiness can be transferred across time, then is it possible that a poor hairy ape eons ago, losing a banana(and thereby feeling sad), can make you happy today?
Did you realize you could be a bloody sadist, coz that ape might've died when the other ape that stole its banana also gave it a whack on the head. And now, that's the source of your happiness! Chee cheee

On a related note, couldn't you have just invented a tree that yielded bananas faster, rather than inventing a fast forward button for life?
Simple living, simple thinking

Anonymous said...

:) was just going thru some of ur old posts ... and this post made me feel just glad: D Read on...

I hope u aint got any copyrights already over this innovative idea of yours: P But tell you what! I had thought about feelings like love (mainly) and happiness in the same way when I was in high school.

I had postulated a thesis in the same vein even; only difference is its not totally based on the Law of Conservation of Matter (that’s the one right?) and I called it my "entropy" theory ... was a science student na heh [JUST like Over time how the temperature of a cup of coffee and the temperature of the room become equal, we give or take (depending on the situation) mutual amounts of happiness and love just like so... till an equilibrium is achieved! We either become a source or a receiver, and this theory can be extended to many other things too, even anger! And the reason I was formulating this theory was the fact that I was sure that I was a human sink i.o.w I had the ability to receive and never give back or give and never take back things lol *]

ummm I have got another theory too** glad i came across this and got to know that i am not so crazy (as my friends have made it obvious to me) after all.. heh

*some other time ; long story
** lol its a corollary to my entropy theory, deals with the degree of disorder heh.. will put it up on my blog someday! :D

Anonymous said...

WOW! You have put this altogether in an extraordinary way. I am totally with you in this theory of happiness. I'm 15, in high school and is currently studying about energy. And there was question that I was stuck with. 'How does the law of conservation relate to my family?' And thanks to you, I've had a greater understanding of 'Law of Conservation'.

Unknown said...

this is crazy! i thought of THE EXACT SAME THEORY (around about late 2007 ><), and i named it after the fundamental laws of physics, the conservation of energy, mass, and momentum. and i though that i had single handedly thought up the meaning of life. i even thought up the same name! you've done a really good job in explaining this. In my mind, it was more that happiness (as intangible by nature as it is) is a scalar quantity and throughout space, time, and all the parallel dimensions, the sum of all happiness is (some mean happiness between happiness and sadness). so sometimes happiness can be explained from sadness in a parallel dimension where a different outcome occurred.
maybe this has something to do with that "100th monkey syndrome" where people have a collective conciousness.

Anonymous said...

-There's a hole in the theory what if someone where to continuosly take anti-depressants then they would continue to maintain happiness
[and maybe the whole order would be thrown off...who knows]

ak-47 said...

Much like the conservation of energy where energy in equals energy out. Happiness can be viewed the same way, happiness in equals happiness out. For oneself to be happy another needs to feel unhappy.

Stupidosaur said...

well i need few clarifications:

1) Where was your happiness between the time you missed one train and got another
2) If each person has a set point happiness level (the comment that you agreed to), then as population increases, total available happiness should increase, shouldn't it? Because that is the only what seems consistent. Otherwise with every person born, your set point happiness level must decrease.

There could be another explanation though. Is the total happiness total across species, or just withing species, or just one species of humans? (reference red ant comment). Maybe other species becoming extinct compensates for human population increase.

ggarses said...

Well, I thought that I had the law of conservation of happiness all to myself. Looks like you got there first. Enjoy my happiness.

Shaun Tocher said...

By a complete coincidence I just came up with the same theory, with the same name! I only found out I wasn't the only one, when I tried googling "Conservation of happiness". I think anyone interested in the theory, may also be interested in my version, as I bring in a few more interesting points. I'm not trying to steal traffic, just for the name of science. Here's my blog;