flipping coins

Dec 28, 2021

I’ve spent the last few months thinking about what to do after graduation, and although I’ve finally decided on a course of action, there are still a lot of unresolved thoughts floating around. This post will be the first in a mini-series about the things I struggled with during these months.

What makes my life meaningful? …

Something that I’ve thought about for a long time is the questions of what gives meaning to my life. While we haven’t really defined what exactly “meaning” is, I trust that this post will make sense regardless.

For a significant portion of my life, I thought that I would derive meaning from life by doinmg meaningful work. I used to work in gene therapy and virology research and my mantra was “I will do something useful with my life.” I wanted to add value to the world, and I still do, but what I considered to be valuable has changed from the way I defined it in high school.

I previously identified being useful with doing something to improve our understanding of the world (and using this knowledge to develop tools to help people). While I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this definition, I think it is very limiting. Under this definition, only large scale work can be considered useful. To make matters worse, up until a few months ago, my main source of happiness was from doing useful things – as you might guess, I was not a very happy person. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

In the past year, though, and somehow mostly independent of the pandemic, a few things happened that pushed me towards rediscovering the things that give me meaning in life. I have been pretty lucky so far to have not lost any loved ones so far, but by my own ignorance I think this has resulted in my living a generally ungrateful life. I was terrible at living in the present becauase I was always thinking about my research and how I could attain that next drop of happiness by proving the result I was stuck on. However, after multiple loved ones experienced health-related incidents, I quickly realized how unstable my life was. I mean unstable in the mathematical sense, where small perturbations to the input result in potentially outsized changes in ouptut. I spent almost every waking second living somewhere up there surrounded by abstractions and neglected the foundation on which I stood (also an upcoming post).

Trying to live in the present is hard. I’ve gotten a lot better at enjoying the small things and having fun for fun’s sake, but it’s definitely still something I have to work on every day. That said, though, I do find myself enjoying life more than I used to. I think there’s a connection to the hedonic treadmill here, but I’m not well-read enough to really explore it. I find it interesting how quickly I was able to reframe some of the basic components of what gives me meaning. Some exercises I tried during these months are 1) enumerating the things that made me want to stay alive 2) daily journalling 3) flipping coins. The first two are rather self-explanatory. By the third, what I mean is spending less time thinking about inconsequential decisions. It used to take me an hour to get dressed in the morning. I used to spend hours thinking about what food to eat. I would spend these hours thinking about patterns that really didn’t matter such as the frequency with which I wore certain articles of clothing or ate at restaurants, I would spend an hour thinking about how long it would take to eat at certain restaurants so that I could save an extra 15 minutes of research time after dinner – all this thinking but for what? Nowadays, when I can’t decide on something, I’ll just flip a coin, and if I don’t like the outcome, I pick the other option. And, rather than spending the time saved on research, I spend it on other sources of happiness. I can not emphasize how much of a difference it’s made.

… Whatever I want!

The above story frames the past year as a big change, but do keep in mind that change is relative to the starting state. I still do struggle with the things I’ve mentioned because it has only been a few months. I’m also still quite obsessed with research, but I think my relationship with it has become much less toxic. Again, I’ve also been working on research projects non-stop for the past 6 years, so it’s kind of the only way I remember living life. One of my friends recently asked me what things I was excited about, and I couldn’t answer her question then, but now, I do think that I’m excited to try living life without research for a year or two. After all, if I don’t enjoy life without research, I don’t think the Ph.D. door will close on me that quickly.

One last thing I want to do is to remind myself that I am in control of how I respond to external stimulus. There are a lot of things in life that we can’t control, the thing we have most control over (for most people) is ourselves. We get to decide what gives us meaning in life, so be sure to continuously question why you do the things you do.