Monday, April 20, 2015

The laws of thermodynamics say happiness is a choice

There's an old joke about the laws of thermodynamics, a set of laws to explain how our physical world behaves. It goes something like this:
Zeroth: You must play the game.
First: You can't win.
Second: You can't break even.
Third: You can't quit the game.
This sums up the human perception of reality fairly well. You're born. You must play the game. You try to make life better by winning. There is no such thing as winning for someone else has to lose if you win. You try to break even, but no matter how hard you work, what you get is never entirely the same amount of energy expended. You can't quit the game, either. When you die, all your marbles are returned to the game.

That joke is the most concise expression I've ever seen about the laws of thermodynamics. But there is something else that thermodynamics does: it reminds us that, scientifically and objectively, no matter how much work we put into something, we will never get 100% back. It doesn't matter if we're talking about nuclear energy, doing homework or running a Fortune 500 company. Our tiny little brains seem tuned to trying to achieve break even, but it never happens.

The worst part is, no matter what we do, entropy ensures that nothing we do is permanent. Everything degrades, wears out, or changes in some way, even if we don't use that thing. No matter how hard we try to preserve the results of our work, the universe will not let it be. We set something down one day and a few days later it's gone. Moved by the spouse, the wind or the flood. It all eventually slips from our grasp.

To put it differently, no amount of money or material wealth can even remotely approximate the effort expended by the brain. The brain is simply never satisfied with the reward received from work. We work, measure our work and yet, we come up short. Even if we have other people working for us, we still think "they" could do better so we push harder, have more meetings, send out more emails and try all manner of encouragement.

When we get home, we have the big screen TV to sink into. We have the sound system for our choice in music. The kitchen to cook in and lose ourselves in a recipe. We can putter around in the basement organizing or building something in the shop. We can check our phone to see what new post appeared on Facebook or Google+ or Redddit or Tumblr. If we're doing well financially, we can check the bank account, the investments, or watch CNBC.

But none of that stuff really matters, at least for me, unless I'm sharing this life with someone else. Having a nice house is better with someone else. I reach break even and more when I share my house with someone else. My wife, my kids, and any relatives or friends who would like to visit. When I'm with other people, all that electronic stuff falls to the wayside. Why?

I think that there are two exceptions to the laws of thermodynamics. The Beatles observed the first exception, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make". The second exception? The choice to be happy. Once we make a choice to be happy, all other conditions are moot. Once we're happy with what we have, right now, without reservation, equivalence from the work we perform doesn't matter anymore.
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