On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

Finding my way home…

For me, it was a strange sensation when I realized on my way to Zurich airport that I might be stranded at a place where I had never been before: the somewhat unwelcoming possibility of not “getting home” after a long journey mingled with the exciting possibility of exploring some location that must certainly hold at least a few discoveries to be made. But I’m jumping ahead already… Uhm, given that this will be a recounting of personal experiences, I hope you won’t be bothered too much if I overshoot my usual length limit of about 1,000 words per entry.

As I explained in the overview, I was traveling on a buddy pass, which meant that my flight would only work out under the condition that enough empty seats remained available at the time of boarding. Needless to say, on my desired return date, Monday the 24th of June, this didn’t work out–indeed, next to myself, 11 other people didn’t make it. And the gate crew told all of us that the situation would only get worse in the upcoming few days, as, besides whoever of us would try again, there would be additional “buddies”, trying to fly out from Frankfurt to JFK, probably until the weekend. Bummer!

Not yet knowing what plan B would going to be like, the feeling sank in that I was temporarily stranded, and I felt immensely grateful that my stepmom had suggested, even insisted, that she and my dad would remain close at hand, “just in case.” So, I took my checked bag from the belt again and, exiting through border and customs control with a feeling of this whole experience being some sort of a bad joke, rejoined them shortly afterwards.

Upon my inquiry at the Delta ticket counter as to what other options might be available to return to New York the next day, I was told that flights with some more empty seats available would go out of Amsterdam and Brussels via Detroit and also one from Zurich directly to JFK. The number of empty seats was greatest for the Zurich option, and with a strong desire not to repeat the experience of rising excitement at the gate followed by a complete anticlimax upon realizing I wouldn’t be flying, I opted to go to Switzerland.

This flight was scheduled for 10:30am and I suddenly became aware that if I went to my brother Bernd’s place, I would yet get to see my six-week old nephew Vincent, and I must admit I felt a great sense of joy. Fate had seemingly dealt me a blow, but one that would allow me to actually experience something I had wanted very much, not gotten the chance to, and then being given the opportunity after all. Planing ahead, I found out that a train leaving my brother Bernd’s place at 8:30pm, with a 4-hour layover at the station at Frankfurt airport, would bring me to Zurich nicely at 8am the next day. So much for the plan…

After the decision was made, my dad dropped me off at my brother’s place, and I enjoyed three and half hours of nephew awesomeness. Holding Vincent in my arms, rocking him gently back and forth–I have a video that Bernd took, which easily brings tears into my eyes–was a wonderful and quite deep experience. Finally I could grasp the reality of being “Uncle Joey”. Bernd, Daniela, and I had a small dinner together, and then I was dropped off at the train station with a feeling that this one-day delay had all been worth it!

The short ride to the train station at Frankfurt airport was uneventful, and after realizing that almost all of the little shops, cafés, and facilities inside the train station were closed after 10pm, I decided to wait at the arrivals hall inside the airport terminal instead, which brought about the actually adventurous part of my journey. I had taken a seat at a little counter for travelers needing to charge some piece of electronic equipment, and after calling my mom to say good night, I began to read one of the books I had bought at the high school reunion.

A few minutes later, a woman approached me and another fellow traveler sitting next to me, inquiring about an issue she was encountering with the WiFi connection on her cell phone. As it turned out, she had used up the 30 minutes of complimentary Internet service, and my suggestion was that she could use any other device she carried, such as a laptop. Normally, I might have simply gone back to reading my book, but my somewhat heightened sense of care and supportiveness brought my attention back to her every once in a while, and so I realized that she was stranded herself, trying hard to find a resolution to her predicament.

After a while, I decided to “make contact”, and I inquired about what exactly happened to her. She explained that she was on her way back home to Geneva, and that she had arrived from Kathmandu, but missed her connecting flight due to a series of unfortunate events–which would be too much to be told here as well… Long story short, she needed to find a way to rebook her flight to the next possible one: her son’s high school graduation ceremony was set to take place at 2pm the next day, and if at all possible she wanted to be there on time.

As it happened, I had opted for a flat-rate tariff on my German SIM card, and so I decided to let her make use of the air time by offering her to use my cell phone to make a few phone calls and inquire about the possibility for rebooking the flight. Unfortunately, after a series of calls to her traveling agency, her husband, and then to the Lufthansa service line in the US, it turned out that the only way to rebook her ticket was to wait at the terminal until the counters would open the next morning. And one of the phone calls I had even made myself, as Sharad–I was pleased to make the acquaintance of–was trying to get some more information from her husband via Internet based text chat.

By that point I had figured out that my train would be another option for her to get home, with her needing to transfer at Basel to Geneva, and me transferring at the same station to a train going to Zurich airport. And when I made the suggestion, Sharad seemed actually excited, but what about the luggage? That hadn’t been released to her, given that she had been checked in on her connecting flight.

So, during a longer phone call she made, I took it upon myself to inquire with a guy from the information desk–to the utter astonishment of Sharad, as I left her with my cell phone–and together we managed to convince the people from the Lufthansa baggage service personnel that her suitcase would be sent to Geneva airport the next morning even though she had missed her flight. After Sharad heard the news, and actually confirming the arrangements in person, we left the airport together, bought a train ticket to Geneva, and then had about 30 minutes left at the train station before our journey together was to begin.

It was a funny moment when, in the middle of a conversation we had started about my work at Columbia, Sharad suddenly inquired about my name, realizing we had been working so intently on finding a way for her to reach home early the next day without ever formally introducing ourselves. And from that moment on, I somehow felt that I had made a good friend. The train arrived with about 20 minutes delay–Deutsche Bahn not living up to its reputation but very much fulfilling the by now quite often encountered stereotype. After we located our car, which had a series of reclining resting chairs, I inquired whether I could change seats so Sharad and I could travel together, and then a quite long and interesting conversation ensued, both about her work and two-week trip to Nepal and my current interest in emotion and motivation and their relevance for communication and relationships.

At some point a fellow traveler reminded us of the time, and we decided to try to take a little nap. It was around 4:40am when I realized something wasn’t going according to plan: the train wasn’t moving any longer. We had stopped at a train station some time earlier to receive additional cars from a train coming from Berlin, and when I asked the conductor, I was told that this train had a one-hour delay due to a storm, and I began to have a first small “pinch” of the feeling I might not make it to my flight. After returning to my seat, I found I had woken Sharad and I told her about the delay. Knowing that her husband might be a little worried about her impromptu decision to take the train, she sent him a text message from my phone, and then we waited. But this wouldn’t be the only delay…

After only another half hour or so of moving, we stopped again at a train station where we weren’t even supposed to. As it turned out, our train itself was facing a technical malfunction, and the engine needed to be replaced, which took close to an hour and a half, by which time I was certain that my flight would be taking off without me. Luckily, the lady at the Delta counter had given me her direct number at the ticketing desk, and so, shortly after 6:30am, I was able to reach her and rebook my flight to Wednesday. And that was when I learned just how much of a friend I had made during the past few hours…

As I was telling Sharad about my plans to go to Zurich and stay at a hotel, she simply suggested I could join her and her family at the high school graduation in Geneva and then make my way to Zurich from there. At first, this seemed like too much of a detour–the train ride from Geneva to Zurich would be another three hours, but the prospect of spending more time with a new found and already very feeling-close-to friend was indeed much more appealing than the idea of ending up in a city where I wouldn’t know anyone. So, at the train station in Basel, while I was rebooking my train ticket from Zurich to Geneva, Sharad bought some food for the remaining train ride, and we had yet some more wonderful exchange of thoughts, all the while some very stunning landscapes passed by–not all of which I was giving their deserved attention, as I was still much more interested in hearing about her experiences in Nepal and relating some of her work with what I am interested in.

By now my German SIM card had become useless, and I managed to ask a couple of travelers in probably very funny sounding French whether we could briefly use their iPhone for a quick call to Sharad’s husband, Satya, who would then know about the time of our arrival. And so we made it to Geneva with about two and a half hours of delay–at least relative to the original arrival time my friend would have gotten there. We then took the tram to the western outskirts of the small but fairly cozy city at the lake, and arrived at Sharad and Satya’s place just in time for a brief but most delicious lunch that he had prepared for us and then each of us took quick shower and changed into fresh clothes so we could attend the graduation ceremony of their son Eklavya’s “in style”.

This event would deserve its own little story, but suffice it to say it was almost as extravagant as some of the ceremonies I’ve witnessed in the US; quite more so than what I remember of my own Abiturfeier. After the official part with a few speeches–as I learned that day, my French is still good enough to follow a lot of what’s going on–, some live music presented by some students, a video collage showing the quite eventful past year, and the final handing over of the actual diplomas and special awards, there was a small reception. I only took one or two small snacks, having been well fed by the food Sharad had gotten at Basel as well as Satya’s superb cooking, and then decided to play a bit on the piano, and what a well-tuned instrument that was (I wish I had one of those…).

Next, we went back to Sharad and Satya’s place where I was given the chance to rest a little. And then I was asked to join a small dinner celebration in honor of the graduate, which gave me the first real opportunity to also connect with Satya and Eklavya. Satya told me a bit about his work and I heard about Eklavya’s plans which university and program to go for. Our conversation then became much more broad, such that we discussed what career options would be most likely to lead to a fulfilling work experience, and it was then that I once again realized how much I had liked the idea of being a teacher, helping others finding “their way”, but that the reality of how school-based education is organized in many places, focusing on and pointing out failures rather than allowing people to naturally learn from any mistakes they make, I had decided to take a different route altogether.

When it was time for me to go back to the train station, Satya then suggested that given the flexibility of my flight ticket, I could just as much stay over night, have a decent rest, and enjoy another day in Geneva. Initially I felt that would be stretching my good fortunes, but then again I also wanted to experience more of the wonderful new friendships I had found. And so I decided to ask my friend working at Delta to rebook the flight–once more! Seriously, I hope he will not tell a completely different story about my travels, saying that I have been such a pain in the butt, that he will never ever talk to me again.

The rest of the evening then was a most pleasant affair, sitting on the sofa in a living room with a veranda, sipping away on a cup of green tea, followed by another hour of talking to Satya about some of the more practical issues he was encountering at work. And then, finally, I went to bed after not sleeping properly for more than 36 hours. I’m still surprised at how refreshed I felt the next morning, and after taking a shower and having some breakfast I was eager to see Geneva. Satya had just called Sharad, asking her to drop off a sweater, as the weather had turned out to be rather “nippy” (chilly) and then we took the tram back to the city.

Since we were talking so vividly on our way, it was no wonder we ended up missing our transfer stop and so we decided to walk from the tram all the way first to the U.N. Palais and then, a little further, to the W.H.O. building where we would meet Satya for an early lunch and a tour of the building. The cafeteria there offered some excellent salad options, and the rooftop view simply is gorgeous. On our way through the building we ended up running into several people who knew Sharad–she also had worked for the W.H.O. before.

It was about 1:30pm when we left to make our way down to the lake. From there we took a nice stroll towards the old town of Geneva, where we had a wonderful snack: sharing two crêpes, one savory with gruyère and ham, and one sweet with banana and chocolate spread, and a coffee. Well, that is, Sharad had an iced coffee and I got myself a scoop of pamplemousse (sweet grapefruit) ice cream. It was one of the funniest moments of the day when then two ladies behind the counter started laughing out loud after I tried to explain that the iced coffee was not to be made by adding the pamplemousse flavor–something certainly made more hilarious by the fact that my French speaking capabilities are fairly limited…

Given that stores in Geneva usually all close at 7pm, we then decided to stroll a bit through the “downtown” area, window shopping. We also got my train ticket for the next morning, and then went on finding our way to the cathedral in the center of the old town that offers a most stunning and panoramic view over the lake and the surrounding parts of the city. Before returning home, we still took the chance to look at some of the sights close by, including the famous “reformation wall”, and, right next to it, an end-of-school-term fair that was going on, where kids were wearing all sorts of hand-made hats, which made everything look even more like a fairy tale…

The only thing we didn’t manage was doing the groceries shopping for dinner, but Satya was way ahead of us! When we arrived, a most delicious assortment of food options was already in the making: Indian style chicken, with home made rotis, and some spinach with cheese and the typical yoghurt to help a bit if things are too spicy. After dinner, we sat with a glass of Kir, and then Sharad, Satya, and I spent about an hour or so talking about the fundamental differences between European, American, and Indian culture. Another feast, this time for the soul and mind!

And now my story is turning to an end (at last!!). The next morning I had to wake up at 3:30am, as my train would leave from Geneva main station at 4:50, and I had to take a cab there, which Satya had ordered to be at their place by 4:20. Once in the train, the trip to Zurich turned out to work like a charm, just as Sharad had predicted and Satya commented on: Swiss trains are always on time, even so much so that if you think they’re late you may as well check if your watch isn’t ahead of time!

During the entire remainder of my journey, while riding the train to Zurich, flying to JFK, and then sitting in the subway on the way to my apartment, I had this constant feeling of awe and bubbly fizziness that signifies that something most unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable had happened to me: out of the blue, I had made first one, then two wonderful friends, I had been welcomed into their home and had shared some incredibly valuable moments with them, and I believe that in the upcoming months and hopefully even years, I will “come back” not only to this memory, but also to this friendship with more opportunities to share meaningful experiences with Sharad, Satya, and also Eklu… Thank you so much for giving me all these precious moments with you!

June 2013 travel report — overview

While I realize that this website is by design a philosophical blog, I equally want to share some private experiences with those of you who are interested in hearing about my life as it is–rather than about what I think about life in general. So, I hope you’ll enjoy what I intend to become a short series of report blog entries giving you a chance to take a glimpse into what happened to me while traveling to Germany and, eventually and unexpectedly, to Switzerland on my family visiting vacation time in June 2013.

First, I feel the need to mention that the ticket I got was not a regular ticket but what is known as a Delta Airlines Buddy Pass. Briefly put, staff members of Delta Airlines have the opportunity to extend the perk of a “non-revenue” flight to family members and close friends. This then means, naturally, that air travel becomes much more affordable, but if you think there is no catch, well, there are a few–some or maybe even all of which I experienced. The major one maybe being that while you can make a flight reservation, a seat assignment will be given “at the gate”. And paying customers as well as buddies with higher priorities will be given seats preferentially, such that there is always the chance that you won’t actually get the flight you intend but that you have to come back to the airport for a flight at a later date with more empty seats or accept a different route altogether.

Still, with ticket prices for a round trip to Germany–JFK/Frankfurt/JFK to be precise–soaring beyond my financial means, I very gladly accepted this risk, and in the end it turned out to be the source of quite a few extra adventures you’ll get to read about. I would go as far as saying that without those, the travel report might turn out to be relatively boring and commonplace, so maybe sometimes it’s worth being inconvenienced for the sake of being disturbed in one’s routine to make some new and unexpected experiences. Naturally, I believe for that to succeed it is necessary to be open towards those situations. Imagining that I would have been angry or resentful about not making my return flight of choice, the subsequent events would certainly have played out differently…

OK, getting to the chase: I was staying in touch with my Delta Airlines friend to find and confirm a possible date to fly out, and on June 11 it finally became apparent that I should be able to make it for the flight on Thursday the 13th. It’s an overnight flight that arrives in Frankfurt on the morning of the next day. And given my vacation allowance, I decided to aim for the return flight on the 24th, which would give me ten full days of vacation and family time. So much for the plan! The flight from JFK to Germany worked out, although barely as I now believe, but the flight back was just a bit of a utopian idea, but more on that later.

Here is now, in as brief as possible terms, what happened throughout my trip as a kind of ticker list of news headlines and short summaries:

  • June 12, 2013, High Price by Dr. Carl Hart: while maybe not directly related to my vacation plans, I think it’s important to mention my getting and reading this book; it helped me by providing some more thoughts and ideas about why people do the things they do
  • June 13, 2013, my flight to Germany: barely (it seems) making my flight, but having a very long and totally awesome conversation with a stranger, Michael, who turns out to be an architect from New York also teaching at Columbia University
  • June 14, 2013, luggage delayed at JFK: not knowing all the conditions of Buddy Pass traveling I assumed I can check my bags and get them; turns out there is always a (pretty good) chance of that not happening and checked bags being delayed… So, if you’ll be flying as a Buddy, use hand luggage only! 😉
  • June 14, 2013, train trip to Koblenz: as I already knew that I would need some Euros, I had exchanged a bit of money and was able to get a train to Koblenz where I was picked up by a neighbor of my mom’s (who no longer has a car), and this and the next day were spent with “chilling out” in the beautiful and extremely sleepy Eifel and having a few really good conversations with my mom
  • June 16, 2013, picking up my bag: finally getting the information that my bag had arrived, my mom and I went to Frankfurt airport (yes, Buddies will not have their bags delivered!) followed by a very nice afternoon in Koblenz’s old town and a visit at the “Deutsches Eck” where Rhine and Mosel join; in the evening I met with some old friends which felt like a nice forecast for my high school reunion a week later
  • June 18, 2013, my brother Bernd comes for a quick visit: although one of the main reasons for my trip to Germany being to get to see my still fairly new-born nephew Vincent, I hadn’t gotten the chance yet; still my brother Bernd decided to visit my mom and me to “hang out” and have a little bit of good-old-times fun
  • June 19 and 20, 2013, staying at my dad’s: given that my parents are divorced there is always some scheduling required to see both my mom and dad; this time I decided to stay with him during “the middle” of my vacation with a sleep-over, and I had some very, very good conversations with my dad and his wife about emotions, needs, decisions, and why we as humans often seem to be too entrenched in our immediate thoughts, judgments, and subsequent emotional responses, leading us to easily miss the best opportunities in life
  • June 21, 2013, my oldest brother Markus arrives in town: a family visit would not be complete without seeing both my brothers, and I was and am very grateful and happy that Markus took the time to come to my mom’s place; in part also due to the fact that we both went to the same high school and the reunion was for all years and classes, and as with my dad, I had some good conversations again 🙂
  • June 22, 2013, the high school reunion day: the afternoon finally brought me to one of the two main reasons for my visit: seeing people from my past and, possibly, rekindle some contact; as it turned out, to my knowledge only 4 other students of my year made it, but I still had a totally awesome time at a “literary café” where three former students (not of my year though) read from their own literature works, two of which I bought and have been enjoying quite a bit already since
  • June 23, 2013, NOT seeing my nephew: for those of you who don’t know… My mom’s emotional situation can become fairly volatile at times, and after a night frequently interrupted by loud music playing on the stereo in my mom’s apartment and talking to both my brothers, the decision was made not to go see my nephew; instead I went to visit both my grandmothers’ graves with my mom
  • June 24, 2013, NOT flying back to JFK: initially it might have seemed like really bad luck, first missing out on my nephew then not getting on the flight, but then fate seemed to twist and turn and put me on top again… Had I not been bumped off the flight, I would not have seen my nephew, but after rebooking to fly out from Zurich the next day, I had enough time left to visit my brother Bernd and yet got to meet Vincent, yay!
  • June 24, 2013, late evening, meeting another stranger: now we come to the truly remarkable and exceptional part of the story… On my way from my brother’s place to Zurich the next day, I had to transfer trains at the airport in Frankfurt, and as I had a 4-hour overlay, I decided to wait at the airport terminal rather than the train track; there I made the acquaintance of a very, very lovely lady, Sharad, who was stranded, whom I tried to support in her efforts to rebook the flight she missed, and who ended up taking the same train, with us becoming friends along the way
  • June 25, 2013, NOT flying from Zurich either: looking back it seems as if fate wanted me to stay in Europe–maybe as a sign to miss a special someone’s birthday? Be that as it may, the train first had a one-hour delay while waiting for some cars being added from a different train coming from Berlin, and then another even longer additional delay when a technical malfunction prevented us from moving for another hour; given that I would not make my flight in time, Sharad suggested I join her and her family in Geneva for her son’s high school graduation ceremony
  • June 25 and 26, 2013, Geneva revisited: taking Sharad up on her offer, I ended up spending an incredibly wonderful day and a half with new found friends while also being given a tour around the lake and through the old town of Geneva–reminding me of an early childhood episode–, and, as you may have guessed, having yet more long and very interesting and memorable conversations; the time I got to spend there will hopefully remain as vivid in my mind as it is now! Thank you, Sharad and Satya, for everything!!
  • June 27, 2013, train to Zurich and flight to JFK: at last I was able to make it to an airport in time–though there wasn’t much buffer left–and, for the first time in my life, traveled business class; yet another (though quite small) adventure. Given that the checkin counter and the gates were very far away, I took the risk again of checking my bag, and “paid” for this decision with it being delayed once more…

So much for the overview! Details on some parts of my travels to follow, particularly on this last, unexpected journey 🙂 I hope you did and will enjoy these blog entries, even though they deviate a bit from the usual material.

Why do relationships fail? And how to improve things?

Maybe those sound like trivial questions, but in part fueled by very recent conversations with both my divorced parents, I started to wonder what is at the basis of relationship failure. At this time, I don’t feel very qualified to give a truly comprehensive answer, but I would like to share some of my initial thoughts and encourage you to comment so as to possibly come to a better understanding.

Overall, I see three main categories of reasons: first, a relationship could simply become dysfunctional due to practical reasons. For instance, if two people live close by and a considerable part of the relationship quality is defined by the fact that they regularly meet, it is possible that by one of the people moving to a far away place the relationship would suffer and, at least unless the two people involved find a way to redefine their interaction and also accept this change, it may not survive. The same is true for things occurring within a relationship that are perceived as too disruptive to be tolerated in the long term, such as harmful behavior.

The second big reason in my mind is inefficient communication, which may manifest itself in various forms: two people could be communicating too little (or too much), or simply there are too many misunderstandings. In short, the needs that both people have in a relationship to experience one another and the union as positive through communication are not met. This could be due to differences in needs, such as one person always wanting to know where the other one is whereas the other person having no such need and also having difficulties to represent this need and acting accordingly.

The last and more or less final stage that I think is often the result of either of the other two is the notion that people begin to wonder about and finally doubt the other person’s intentions. It is simply part of human experience that we cannot truly know what goes on in someone else’s mind. We are forced to interpret behavior and communication and form a mental representation of the other person’s intentions. At the beginning of a relationship, and fueled by neurochemical changes, people seem very much able to overlook negative experiences in favor or interpreting someone’s behavior as benevolent. We may feel temporarily hurt by how we perceive someone’s action, but we feel no need to doubt their intentions. However, this mechanism itself may already be at the root of setting up a relationship failure…

Imagine you start feeling attracted to someone. At some point you find out about a potentially detracting quality, such as a habit you personally dislike. While you are in the stage of “being in love” you will in all likelihood accept this information, but after this phase is over and a more “realistic” appraisal sets in, you may at some point misattribute these qualities as being expressed intentionally.

But even more globally, the reason to have a sense of dissociation (and that of a relationship failing) may eventually be characterized by the subjective processes of assessment, interpretation, and judgment that the other person’s intentions, or least part of them, are either not “supportive” (positive) enough or actually even destructive (negative). In that case, a relationship that has once started out as harmonious and mutually beneficial can actually turn into a war–something often enough described in the literature and unfortunately found also in reality: two people who once loved one another begin to fight and are unable to stop, based on the assumption the other person’s intention is to inflict harm and pain, with the only seemingly reasonable option being to strike.

Naturally, there are relationships that enter this stage without the need to ever having been in love. But the underlying mechanism and reason for the parties involved to keep fighting are the same: the conviction that the respective other actually wants to inflict pain. Importantly, while this assumption is made, it is virtually impossible to reduce the intensity of the conflict. Any information being added, by means of direct communication or indirect negotiation via a mediator, is likely being considered as dubious or even intentionally misleading and fraudulent. I somehow believe it is thus first necessary to at least allow for the possibility that the other person doesn’t have harmful intentions, but is acting out of self preservation interests.

For me, personally, there are now a few things I feel are worth learning as a human being when it comes to relationships and conflict resolution:

On the more passive, receptive, and perception-based side of things, I believe it is important to not let immediate, automatic value and intention judgments stand as absolute. If I observe someone’s behavior and more or less automatically attribute an intention that I consider to be harmful, I think it is important to resist the emotional impulse of reacting, and instead allow myself to consider alternative explanations. For instance, if I reach out to someone and that person ignores me, it may be very natural to interpret and prematurely conclude that this person is doing so out of a lack of care or even aggression. However, as soon as I “lock in” on this notion, all subsequent interactions will be guided by my judgments, and in all likelihood I will treat the other person as someone I believe may harm me, which then works as a self-fulfilling prophecy par excellence.

On the more active, communicative, and behavior oriented side, I think it is important to actually tell other people what I perceive, feel, interpret and then give them the chance to correct any misinterpretation. It may initially be fairly difficult–I’ve made that experience myself–but somehow I think it is worth it, given that by being open about my internal state, the chance of being perceived as harmful seems so much lower.

Obviously, this is all work in progress! And comments are most welcome.

S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi! — Relationships and responsibility

[Disclaimer: this post has been (heavily) edited on July 21, 2013]

In this post I want to reflect upon my current understanding of meaningful relationships. Before jumping into the topic however, I want to explain a bit about the first half of this post’s title… It comes from one of my (if not my most) favorite books: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

For those of you who do not know the book, it is the story of a man in a desperate and life-threatening situation–having crash-landed his own, small airplane in the desert, and not having much water to survive. He meets “the little prince”, who through conversations reveals what I would call extremely valuable truths about life: how people treat their existence, and how if they treated it differently their experience could potentially be much richer and fulfilling. The language is poetic as well as naïve, in the sense that it seems to be written for children; but for me, with every reading as an adult, I still “learn” from it. Many times, I was able to rephrase my own life in the terms the book provides and “see with my heart” to what extent I was able or not to already incorporate the notions I consider relevant and worthwhile.

To illustrate and give one of the most profound ways in which I experience relationships, I want to quote from the book–in the original French with a few comments of mine. After his arrival on Earth, but before meeting the pilot and narrator of the book, the little prince with his wheat-colored hair also meets a fox and they share a conversation. This is a part of it:

“S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi!” dit-il.

“Je veux bien,” répondit le petit prince, “mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaitre.”

“On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise,” dit le renard. “Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!”

So, in this first part of the conversation the fox tries to explain that it is worth “taming” someone, that is to say getting close to as a friend; in fact it is the only way to make a friend, by spending time with and on someone. It is followed by an explanation on what exactly entails taming: the slow and deliberate process of establishing mutual benevolence, respect, trust, limits, rituals, and allowing natural and intuitive reliance on these relationship foundations to form over time. The little prince engages in this process, and by the end of it, evidenced by the following (shortened) dialog, has successfully tamed the fox:

(…) Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche:

“Ah!” dit le renard… “Je pleurerai.”

“C’est ta faute,” dit le petit prince, “je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…”

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Mais tu vas pleurer!” dit le petit prince.

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!”

“J’y gagne,” dit le renard, “à cause de la couleur du blé.” (…) “Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

(…) Et il revint vers le renard:

“Adieu,” dit-il…

“Adieu,” dit le renard. “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (…) “C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” (…) “Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité,” dit le renard. “Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…”

In other words, once someone has been tamed as a friend, he or she will always remain special and, as the fox says, we remain responsible for keeping it that way. At the very end of the book, the author reflects on how meeting the little prince will always be a source of joy and meaning for his own life. And with that in mind, I am turning to some of my experiences…

About five years ago, only a few months after arriving in New York–and the United States for that matter–I got to know my first ever boyfriend. While it may not have been love at first sight, we developed a great sense of comfort, and despite our differences I think it is fair to say that we tamed one another: we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable, to rely on those elements of friendship and be hurt by their absence. Over time, we both experienced hurt and pain, and looking back I would say the biggest factor in the prolonged pain was a lack of determination and courage to communicate some of the aspects that were lacking or remained unsatisfactory. At some point I felt this relationship to be no longer adequately taking care of some of my needs. At first this was unconscious, and only too late it became fully visible to me.

Unfortunately, this lack of courage didn’t allow me to communicate this sense of dissatisfaction better with my boyfriend of then four years. I very unceremoniously and not at all truth-fully broke up with him. However, both due to the fact that we had tamed one another as well as my not being able to fully appreciate and boldly accept some of my needs–in part driven by very early childhood experiences, I believe–I decided to get back together to my ex-boyfriend, only to fail again…

From the past few months, I have learned it is essential for me that, once someone opens up to me and makes him or herself vulnerable, I do actually want to accept at least part of the responsibility for how he or she becomes fragile and that I want to take care of their needs and feelings, at least to the point that is part of the promise made during the taming. And now I simply have to accept that I cannot take anything back that I did, but want to look into the future and remain open in case my caring is appreciated and wanted. So, as one important life lesson learned: after breaking up with someone, I don’t want to cut the other person off.

The relationship between friendship and altruism as well as empathy

Next week Saturday, June 8, the Helix Center will host a public Roundtable on the topic of Altruism and Empathy. Since I decided to go, I’ve been thinking about both of these concepts and how they relate to friendship and other relationships humans engage in. And as part of a pet project of my own, a neurocomputational model that I’m working on, I would argue that while many people seem to believe that altruism is related to or even based on empathy, I would argue not only that altruism itself is actually different from and unrelated to empathy, but that they are two very different types of concepts:

For me, empathy is the cognitive capability to correctly recognize emotional and motivational states in others. That is to say, someone who is high in empathy is able to correctly assess how someone else is feeling and what motivational components, such as desires, fears, goals, or plans, are in that other person’s mind. As said in the teaser to the roundtable, this capability is thought of to develop more or less naturally during childhood, but the degree to which people are capable of employing this cognitive capacity varies.

On the other hand, altruism for me is what I would call a set of values, desires, wishes, and subsequent goals that allow people to make choices which incorporate other people’s needs and wishes into their decisions to a greater extent. In other words, someone high in altruism will care about other people’s needs more strongly.

Why do I believe these concepts to be unrelated? First, from a theoretical point of view, empathy seems to be an ability or function rather than a value or parameter. I consider the difference roughly that of the ability of driving a car–without accidents, that is to say knowing how to drive safely–and liking old-timers. Both are certainly related to a common theme, cars, but one of them is a capability, the other one is more of a passion or personal value. And equally as I think that some people are damn good drivers but don’t care about old-timers, I would suggest there are people who care about old-timers but haven’t driven a car once.

The same is true I think for empathy and altruism: both are related to social interactions. However, I believe there are people who are high in empathy and low in altruism, and I believe there are people who are low in empathy but high in altruism. The former group I would say might be extremely well suited to be salesmen, spokespeople for corporations, politicians, debaters, attorneys, in short representatives of interests that are not their own and, to a substantial degree, are contrary to the interests of those they argue with. Why? Well, a high degree of empathy will allow someone to correctly identify how I feel, and paired with a high level of intelligence such a person could then make shrewd but potentially highly accurate guesses as to what it is I want to hear to satisfy a need I am currently experiencing. Once this need is satisfied, I will be more willing to engage in a quid pro quo exchange.

The latter group would be more suited to engage in activities that may not require always knowing perfectly well how someone is feeling at the moment, but having a good routine and functional understanding of people’s needs, thus allowing an interaction to be helpful for someone, even if it is not necessarily experienced as friendly. Professions I would put into this category certainly include military personnel, and to a somewhat lower degree also people working in healthcare, particularly those only interacting with patients to a small extent, such as anesthesiologists, radiologists, cardiologists, in short doctors who are highly specialized and usually only see patients in very particular situations. Obviously it would be desirable to be high on both traits for those professions, but I would yet rather be treated by someone who truly cares rather than someone who only seems to care.

Finally, getting to the actual topic of my post, I would say that the way people differ in altruism and empathy has a huge impact on their friendships. My strong hunch–and I will investigate this further–would be that people high in empathy have many, many friends. In fact, I would guess that people high in empathy are extremely popular among their friends, as they seem to always know how someone feels, which really is helpful if I want someone to talk to. They are understanding and can correctly identify my needs and thus help me figure out things. However, I would say that the number of friends does not necessarily translate into the quality or depth of friendships…

On the other hand, I would say that someone high in altruism will have very strong friendships. Those friendships may be very, very few, particularly for people who are also low on empathy, given that it is difficult to develop a friendship without the capability of reading someone’s emotions. It would seem that without empathy others would think of that person as a bit “out of touch” with them, and would have little motivation to share something personal. However, if for some reason an interaction were to happen, it is very likely that after a short while the other person would realize the great amount of care and good-will on the other side and take the scruffiness with a grain of salt but form a solid friendship. And given the willingness to give up personal gain for someone else’s needs, the friendship has a good chance to stand the test of time and deepen.

As a last comment, I do believe that being high in empathy will make someone who is also high in altruism a much more effective care-giver, as it allows this person to correctly identify needs and desires in others. But that simply doesn’t mean the person cares more than someone who is low in empathy or that they know better what needs to be done as part of the caring. It simply means that they know better how to translate their care into actions that are perceived as caring, something that enhances the experience of being cared for.

Elements of an ideal intimate relationship (for me)

Clearly, the following thoughts are truly “idealistic” in the sense that I have by no means the answer to the question whether this would be possible or whether it would actually turn out to be idyllic, but I strongly feel that the following elements would, from my current perspective, make a relationship more enjoyable and fruitful, in the sense that it fulfills the purpose I think it has.

So, let’s start with that… Why would I want to be in an exclusive relationship to begin with? And please keep in mind that all I’m trying to say is that this applies to me, and only potentially to (some) other people!

This initial question leads me to what it is that I need in life to find contentment and happiness. Overall, I must say that I believe I can find these things through the experiences of learning and reaching goals, and of sharing those with other people, who then reflect back to me that I “got it”. For me the critical aspect of learning is that my mental representation of the world around me becomes more accurate. I have the subjective experience of mastery, of being able to successfully navigate the world. It’s like a child that finds joy in finally being able to stand and take the first few steps; and getting there is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.

Which brings me to the second one: reaching goals. I believe the way my brain–and I think brains in general–conceptualizes the path through life is by placing value on certain experiences and to then improve the chance of making more valuable experiences it sets up goals. To allow complex action sequences, I think it is necessary to also place value on possibly counter-intuitive actions. Sometimes I have to first move away from something that is the primary source of value in order to obtain it, and when I am able to successfully follow this more complex path, the brain also generates a signal of “success” for intermediate steps, even though I did not yet get to the point of actually experiencing what I am after in the first place.

Unfortunately, my brain also produces a lot of noise signals and sometimes loses focus. Goals can be increasingly complex and in certain situations it might be almost impossible for me to see, from an “inside perspective”, how to possibly navigate a complex situation where the reward is visible but can only be obtained through a long series of complicated steps. For one, my brain may become tired and, over time, may lose the potential to keep sending those necessary intermediate signals to “keep me going”.

My foremost response then would be that having a single individual whom I feel most closely connected to–and I will go into detail about what this connection should entail in a bit–is a very intuitively appealing thought. For one, if this connection is genuine, that is to say without pretense and thoroughly honest, it can work as an external source of validation for one’s perceptions, thoughts, and decisions. Very often in life I have felt confusion about whether or not I see things “objectively enough”, followed by doubts about whether a decision I was about to make is truly the best I can do to reach a goal. If I know someone in my life who knows my goals, and who also cares about me reaching those goals, that person seems to be an invaluable source of information.

And here is where I would say nature has implemented an awesome mechanism: romantic love. While I would argue that until fairly recently in human history the concept of romantic love has only been professed by a few rather than by the many, the fact that in a lot of modern cultures the idea that two people joining in an exclusive union should be “in love” seems to suggest that there at least *may* be value in this concept.

Personally I think that the two main advantages of experiencing romantic love are putting the brain into a state of hyper-updating by providing increased levels of certain neurotransmitters that allow new pathways to form. This in turn lets us adapt to given circumstances with much less “resistance” offered by existing cognitive patterns. The other advantage seems to be a pain dampening effect, whereas negative experiences seem much less relevant in the presence of “love” (which I believe is also more persistent, even if the immediate effects of “being in love” have worn off).

Naturally, there are risks involved. First, if the person we fall in love with actually does not care about us in return–or at least to a much lesser degree–we may find ourselves in a position where the signals we are looking for become inconsistent or completely absent, or even worse they may also lead us entirely astray, away from our actual goals because our brains simply “believe” the sender. In that sense I do think that love does make blind to a certain degree.

So, why do I think that, for me, a single individual is possibly better than, say, a group of people we trust? In part I would say this comes from my perception that different people I know, people who I trust, and who I believe to have my best interest at heart, still do not necessarily agree upon what the best course of action is. And while in the greater context of politics and strategic decision making a “democracy”, that is to say the incorporation of several voices and opinions with a majority vote for decision making, has become the de facto standard, I don’t think that this approach is very practical on a personal level. For me at least, the idea of residual doubts and confusion about decisions already taken would be extremely difficult to reconcile with the idea of being able to resolutely move forward through life. Equally as I think that a “commander in chief” of, say, a nation should rather be someone who can make a decision and then not waver than be someone in whom people constantly perceive doubts about whether taken decisions are “good”.

And now, finally, I would come to the qualities of the person I would want to be with 🙂

First, I would want to experience an intuitive sense of understanding. While everything can be potentially explained in good time, and given enough motivation, I believe that it makes much more sense for me to be with someone where the need for explanations of my feelings and thoughts, my needs and goals, are the exception rather than the norm. I would want to experience that this person almost knows me better than I know myself–and to some degree that may then actually be correct, given their outside perspective. Misunderstandings can be extremely costly, particularly in the presence of life-altering decisions.

Second, I think I want to find someone perceptive and open-minded, someone who can think “outside of the box”, someone who allows thoughts to pass through potential barriers from the past. Given that I believe that the most rewarding experiences usually are achieved through somewhat more complex actions, it would seem necessary to be able to step back from the immediate problem and almost rotate it mentally into a different perspective. And to do so, I think it is necessary to be able to leave “known ground” and allow the brain to experience the unknown outside of chartered territory.

Next, I would want someone who is selfless enough to prioritize common goals, particularly the well-being of the relationship itself. Hopefully, the ideal relationship will only require minimal amount of “work”–that is to say maintenance effort to sustain a good standing–but at times that effort may be necessary, and then I would want to be with someone who can use his perceptiveness and cognitive abilities to detect potential issues and then find smart and effective ways to address them, even if that means temporarily cutting back elsewhere.

Finally, I would want to be with someone who has a gift for empathy and inter-personal warmth. In short, someone who cares. Human lives are never straight or easy. At times we experience great depressions and woes. And, then, having this one person around who understands what I’m going through, who perceives the issue and is able to provide both comfort and a fresh perspective that I may not be able to attain given my current state seems like the best chance I have to get out of the depths again.

So, what about physical qualities? Well, I do have a strong preference–for those who know me: silence is golden! I do think that for the brain to be “switched” into this initial state of attraction, physical parameters matter. But from personal experience I would say, the longer I know someone, the less those matter. In short, for me to decide that someone is “worth investigating”, the brain uses (obviously not entirely reliable) heuristics and then sets up a few mechanisms that, if things go well, are set into full motion for me to experience romance. Is it possible to get there without this initial setup? I believe so. I would however say that it’s also more “fun” to experience this first step 😉

And that’s it for now. I may revisit this topic again later though and “improve” on the list…