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Home / Success & Failure  /
Happiness And Contentment Over Multiple Realities
happiness multiple reality

If you don't think you're doing all that well, try to contemplate how you'd be faring in most other realities


Over the weekend, at my wife's urgings, we spent an afternoon watching the sloppy, superficial biopic Jobs.  I knew going in that it would be a bad picture.  Sometimes you just have to suck one up for the team. About the only good thing I can say of the experience is that I downloaded it and watched it at home instead of paying a combined $20 for me and the family to view this cliche-ridden dreck on the big screen at the shopping mall up the street. 

You often see this Jobs' quote:  "Here's to the crazy ones – the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes . . . They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."  Ashton Kutcher's Jobs said it at the end of that abysmal film.  Just to be clear because the movie wasn't, Jobs never said it.  The Jobs-attributed quote was part of the the Think Different ad campaign from the late 1990's created by a Los Angeles advertising agency.  I hope the ad agency sued Jobs' producers. 

There's a certain romanticism, if you will, talking about misfits, rebels, troublemakers, and round pegs, and a large segment of the population who wouldn't remotely qualify for being any of the above commonly look up to the stars pensively and think of what if.  "If only A or B happened, I, too, would have put my own little dent in the universe."  

I recently wrote about how when we're young, we seem to be more open to hanging out with a wider variety of people.  The slate is clean, and we can fill it with most anything we want.   What we don't know yet is that what we put on our slates is largely determined by our background, parental programming, conditioning, whatever you want to call it.   A few of us find a passion and run with it against great odds and socialized behaviors to achieve great success.   Steve Jobs happened to be one of those people.  Incidentally, this is not a tribute to Steve Jobs.  The only reason I'm using Jobs as an example is because of that horrible film about him I just sat through. 

Awhile back, I commented on the concept of multiple universes.  On the subatomic scale, from the point of reference of an electron, there indeed, seems to be proof that alternate universes exist.  Physicists don't phrase things that way, of course.  They speak in terms of probabilities and wave functions.

The daydreamer in us, upon hearing of the idea of multiple universes, contemplates all the wonderful outcomes he'd be sure to enjoy if only he were a citizen of universe #1005 and #1007 instead of this one.  But as I painstakingly described, for most of us one alternate reality doesn't differ so much from this one.  Everything leading up to our birth has to proceed exactly the same way or we wouldn't be born.   Being a product of the same parents, having the same older siblings, likely living in or around the same places you actually lived in would statistically produce a person not much different from the way you presently are.

Factor in that most people aren't risk takers.   They don't take leaps.  They take steps.  In universes #2-1,000,000, people are also not risk takers.  So if you became an accountant in this universe and a half million others, yet a lawyer in universes #500,001-1,000,000, your life would have turned out differently, but would your life really be all that different?  This difference is akin to me killing brain cells this weekend watching Insidious: Chapter 2 instead of Jobs.  Same waste of time, different way to get there.  

I asked a few of my peers whether they would change anything about their past – that is to say, choose to live in a different reality.  Depending on how far back they went, this would alter whom they married and subsequently, the kids born to them.  For this reason alone, everyone I've spoken to says they would change nothing.  They can't imagine a life without their present family.  And yet this answer is almost a 'water is wet' response.  Yes, the people I questioned would've wound up with different spouses and produced different children if they veered off in a different direction far enough back in time, but you can almost take it as a given that they would still love their spouse and children in this new reality just as much as they love their current family in this one.    People answer the question from the point of view of having something taken away.   They can't imagine life with the present people in it removed.  But if they never met these people to begin with and there were other equal prospects to take their place, there would be no pain associated with their loss.

When I talked about marriage, I came to the conclusion that although we are all free to choose our spouses, most of us don't genuinely choose.  For the majority, it comes down to timing and/or desperation.  Don't get me wrong here.  I am not saying most of us marry losers and are in state of perpetual unhappiness.  What I am saying is that there wasn't diligent and meticulous soul searching going on here.  A friend of mine from my high school days met a not-so-attractive girl in his sophomore year in college, dated her, and then married her.  I've queried my wife's colleagues.  Nine out of ten met their spouse on the job.  They might be calling their spouse a soul mate now, but they'd be doing exactly the same thing in another reality with a different spouse they met via a different job. 

Imagine a standard Gaussian distribution curve  or if you can't imagine one, click here.   This is otherwise known as a bell curve.  It doesn't matter what quality we're measuring on the left-to-right axis, be it wealth, intelligence, or health.   Most of us, approximately 68%, fall within a standard deviation on either side of the center.  As we journey to the extreme left and right of the curve, we come to the region of the outliers, consisting of just 4% of the sample -- 2% on the left and 2% on the right.  If we were talking about IQ, someone falling on the extreme left would be severely retarded; someone on the right, an undisputed genius.  About wealth, the leftmost represents the homeless guy bearing a squigee you just gave a dollar to as your car was standing at the traffic light; the rightmost, Carlos Slim, Steve Jobs or any of the world's other billionaires. 

The quality we want to measure on our Gaussian distribution curve is happiness or contentedness, an overall feeling of believing we've made the most of our life.  But instead of comparing ourselves to the rest of the world's population, we're going to use ourselves, the we's comprising the infinite number of alternate realities. 

Probabilistically, the curve says the we, here and now, lies somewhere in the center, but how does that tell us where we in this current reality actually are?  To figure this out, you need to do a bit of genuine self examination and ask yourself a few questions: 

1)  How happy and contented are you really?  Not what you tell or kid yourself, but the way you actually feel?

2)   Where do you fall on the personality scale?    Are you a "crazy one", a misfit, a rebel, a troublemaker, a round peg in a square hole?  Or just a regular average Joe?

3)   Looking back on your life, how easy or difficult would it be to re-engineer the circumstances to lead you back to roughly where you are now?  To break this down for you with an example, if you went to the University of Bumblescrew Law School and got a job at an  undistinguished firm where you met your present wife, not very.  There was not some seemingly impossible coincidence, some magic spark in a bottle, which had to happen to get you here.  Compare that to Bill Gates' journey.  If he hadn't ever gotten the meeting with IBM in 1980 to furnish their operating system or if IBM had rejected Microsoft for another outfit, he'd be sitting in a very different place today.

By the way, I am not specifying that the higher your net worth, the further on the right you necessarily lie, that wealth alone determines your happiness and contentedness score.  If you're the child of a business mogul, then you're wealthy in every reality, but are you equally happy and content across all of them?  For some, wealth magnifies a person's worst demons to the point of no return.  Witness Australian rock singer Michael Hutchence.  He committed suicide with a drug overdose at age 37 when he had a net worth estimated between £14m and £20m.  That makes Hutchence, in our reality, a rightside outlier on the wealth scale, but a leftmost outlier on the happiness and contentedness scale.  Hutchence should have fared better in most other realities, possibly less wealthy, but much more stable.   Ditto for Kurt Cobain. He had an estimated net worth of $100m at the time he shot himself at age 27.   For Kurt, the majority of other realities would have offered him a better future.   I can go on an on.  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, all rich and famous, all tragedies before age 30.  What about John Jacob Astor IV?  He was the richest passenger aboard the Titanic and thought to be among the richest people in the world in 1912.  The 'poor' guy was sent to Davy Jones' locker on a one way trip at only age 47.   There must be numerous alternate realities where a simple middle-class Astor received a more appetizing overall lifetime deal.     

I admit that it's easier to determine a person's position in the scheme of all realities after he's dead.  There's no more information left to consider.  The day the Titanic set sail from England, John Jacob Astor must've looked like king of the world, a lot more so than Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the movie, as he occupied the extreme rightmost position across all his multiple realities.  Five days later, Astor was on the bottom of the ocean.  We can only make a guess where we might lie relative to all other realities based on our circumstances today.  None of us can know what unpredictable things tomorrow may bring.   And we also don't know what traits and congenital issues come packaged with a person across all the realities in which he exists.  Was Kurt Cobain perchance born with a severe depression disorder which made him unhappy and suicidal regardless of how well he was doing on the outside?  Would Steve Jobs have suffered from pancreatic cancer in 99 out of every 100 realities?  If so, these men may have lived out their best version of life in our reality.   And one other thing we don't know for sure is what these other people valued.  The famous actor James Dean was only 24 when he died in a car crash, at the height of his fame.  In fact, his enduring fame is due to the fact he never left a huge legacy to be judged against.  He died before he declined.  We look at Dean's short life and assume he must have had it better in other realities only because he wouldn't have died so young.  But some people  just don't value longevity all that much  They'd rather pack a ton of experience into a brief period of time rather than live out a long life and suffer the trials and tribulations of old age and being a has been.  Jim Morrison was one such man. For most of us, it's tricky to judge the value of longevity vs other tradeoffs because we are not old enough to assess what longevity feels like.

If you're on the extreme leftmost side or rightmost side of the curve (more than two standard deviations above or below the center), you'll know it, and if you don't know where you lie, you're probably among the 68.26% in the center.  The misfits, rebels, troublemakers, and round pegs in square holes would fall into both extremes.  A misunderstood "crazy one" would be cursing life on the leftmost side of the curve.  An accepted "crazy one" such as Steve Jobs, embraced and heralded for his achievements, would be loving life on the right side. 

To sum it up succinctly for you, if you're truly happy and content, living and associating with supportive people, doing a job you love, and making decent money doing it, and this situation would be almost impossible to duplicate because of all the chance lucky breaks or encounters that landed in your lap, then you're doubtlessly on the right side.  All of the above minus the difficult-to-emulate breaks, then you're probably somewhere between one and two standard deviations above the center, in the 85th to 90th percentile.  

Those who've made it tremendously big in fields where big breaks can't be re-engineered according to a formula are, statistically, living a better life in this reality than they would anywhere else.  Let's use Jerry Seinfeld as an example.  In the 1990's, he was the star of the most successful TV show of all time, a show that even 15 years after its cancellation still makes gargantuan revenues, $2.7bn as of 2010.  But NBC was prepared to cancel the show after the pilot debuted in 1989.  Funds diverted from a Bob Hope television special provided the cash to film four more episodes which comprised the first season.  Even then, the show took three years to cultivate an audience and could have been canceled at any time.  Had it been pulled, what would that have meant for the careers and fortunes of Jerry and his co-stars?  Out of a thousand realities, Jerry wouldn't be a megastar in most of them.  This is no slam on Jerry's work ethic.  It's the nature of show biz.    

Anyone who has become the head of their nation, particularly of high profile countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, had to overcome tremendous odds.  Getting the job isn't as simple as passing a standard entrance examination or getting accredited by some association.  In another reality, where the political minefield looks somewhat different, another person besides Barack Obama would have secured the Democratic party's nomination in 2008. These politicos, who upon retirement can collect huge fees for speaking engagements and directorship fees for doing nothing, are probably living it up better here than anywhere else and would lie more than three standard deviations above the mean. 

The most successful athletes are one of the few categories which are reality-independent.  They've hit it big, but the secret to their success isn't one chance encounter or whim of a trainer.  This type of success can be re-engineered.  In another reality, if Tiger Woods' father took him out to practice golf while young, Tiger would have still evolved into the brilliant golfer he became in this reality.  The laws of physics and practice don't differ in an alternate reality.  Michael Jordan would have been just as good a basketball player in most other realities.  His talent was so far above most of his peers that he would not have gone unnoticed.  But notice I don't say every reality.  These men owe their success in part to other people and their avoidance of tragic personal events.  If Tiger Woods' dad had died when Tiger was only one, would someone else have exposed Tiger to golf?  If Michael Jordan had been involved in an accident which affected his ability to walk normally, would he have still become world class basketball player? 

I often wondered where on the reality scale I lay.   I took for granted I was just in the center or one deviation above or below like most other people.  It's very easy to place yourself there because, with the media beaming images of teenaged billionaires and the latest celebrity homes for sale, you too often end up comparing yourself to others, when you really should just be comparing yourself to … well, yourself.  My brother made a comment to my wife over the phone last week that in 99.9999% of other realities, I couldn't have found a better woman, and he's right.  I don't believe there's a me in 99% of the other realities echoing that same sentiment.  Rather, I think in most other realities, I never bothered to get married because I didn't find anyone worth marrying.  I lived a solitary life for years in Los Angeles and could see how uneventful and pointless my life would've remained had I stayed.  My life is better now than it was 10 years ago, and I wound up in this situation almost as if destiny lay it out before me.  It was nothing I could have engineered.  In other realities, I could see myself taking that Proctor & Gamble job right out college, becoming a middle level manager, marrying someone mildly compatible - if I deigned to get married - as I got an MBA, leading the very conventional life Steve Jobs (and myself, more importantly) would have scorned.  These were all options thrown before me in various guises up until the time I moved abroad. 

Is the me here living in the top 0.0001% of all the realities where I exist, occupying one of the treasured rightmost spots?  That may be assessing my situation too generously, but I'll be optimistic and guesstimate I'm in the top two percent. I'm less happy, less content, less fulfilled in at least 98% of other realities.   Or I can kid myself I am, and because no one can disprove the assumption, delude myself until it's true. 

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