The Universal Principles #1

This is a new serial blog I am starting. I don’t know if I’ll have the patience and perseverance to continue it, but I had the idea of it since a long time ago, and I found some time today, and I decided to start with it.

The Universal Principles will be an effort to describe and categorize different repetitive patterns I see in nature and life, and also their explanations as I see them. These patterns will be generic, seen everywhere, and for that reason they shall tend to be a little abstract, a little shadowy, so that they can easily take on different specific forms according to the particular situation in which they are applicable.

I shall start with the first one, about the character of want, expectation and fulfillment. I have given it a name.

The Level Zero Principle

We used to be cavemen once, near the end of the ice ages. We used to live in cold caves, had crude tools, and a rudimentary form of communication. Our lives were completely drowned in instincts. Food, shelter, protection from the different fatal elements which used to roam just beyond the periphery all the time. Those were times when danger used to be closer than you can ever imagine now, and we could easily argue whether you’d live to see the end of the month.

We had little.

What did we want? We wanted the little comfort, security and satisfaction that those uncertain times could provide us. An extra little piece of meat, a warmer cave, a place where not many wild animals venture. Sometimes we got these. Then we were happy. When we didn’t, we either died or, if still living, were unhappy because it increased our chances of dying. Simple, straightforward. So much so that it sounds obvious and almost boring to read this.

But read again. What made us happy? A drier cave, an extra leg at dinner, a danger-less night.

Would that make you happy today? No. It would, on the contrary, make you terribly unhappy to have an almost dry cave, uncooked, unwashed meat at dinner, and a night when you were visited only by a few harmless animals, and yes, were almost naked.

So, cavemen used to be neither happy, nor sad — just okay, with meat, cave and a little protection. A situation when they get neither a little more than they hope, nor a little less. This is their normal expectation level. Let’s call this the Level Zero for the cavemen. On a day when a certain caveman kills an extra animal and gets to eat a little more, he gets something more than he expected, something above Level Zero. That makes him happy. When he gets a really wet cave, it’s something worse than he usually expects. So it’s below Level Zero. It’s negative. It displeases him.

For the average caveman, the experiences he has during his lifetime lies on both sides of Level Zero, and they almost equally match each other. So, if you asked the average caveman one evening as to how he feels about life, he’ll say it’s been okay. There have been ups and downs, good days have been matched by bad days, and mostly it’s just been okay.

But there will be some cavemen for whom the ‘above Level Zero’ experiences outnumber the ones lying below, and they are more likely to feel happier, more satisfied, more fulfilled about life. Then there are others who got more below than above, and they feel it’s been unfair, and they muse and are unhappy, dissatisfied.


There are some cavemen for whom, even though their experiences might be just the same as another caveman, life is sadder, or perhaps happier than this other caveman. How did this happen?

Don’t look at the particular experiences he has as standing for either absolute happiness or absolute sadness. Remember, whether an experience is happy or sad is decided by one thing, and one thing only: whether it is above or below Level Zero — the line containing all the little experiences which he usually expects. There might be a caveman whose expectations — Level Zero — is lower than average for some reason, so that more of his experiences lie above it than below. Result: he gets happy. And the same applies for a sad scenario. So we see that there’s no absolute fixed Level Zero for cavemen at the end of the ice ages. Rather, it varies from caveman to caveman, although not so hugely as to make a certain caveman pine for a Beverly Hills mansion while another is happy while a saber-toothed tiger eating him.

Now let’s consider a caveman who keeps getting all sorts of bad things in his life. You’ll argue that after a few days he’ll grow really sad and dissatisfied, because most of his experiences fall below Level Zero. True. But if his Level Zero remains where it is, he’ll keep getting sadder and sadder as his sad experiences become a greater and greater percentage of all his experiences. He’ll very soon grow mad and kill himself. But no one likes to do that so easily, so quickly. So he needs to devise some method to get over the overwhelming dissatisfaction and hang on.

What method?

Simple. His Level Zero. The different experiences he has (think of them as points lying either above or below Level Zero, a horizontal line) he cannot change, but hey, the Level Zero is his, it’s his expectations, it’s what he has conditioned himself to be happy with. He can change that, can’t he? So, he lowers it. More and more points of experience hitting the plane of his life hit above Level Zero now, and he gets hope, and the strength to drag on.

In other words, his deteriorated life forces him to lower his expectations from it, so that he can survive with what little he has. You want to see a more physical evidence of this sort of thing happening? Look at a cactus. It has evolved for the exact purpose of doing the best of what little moisture it gets in the desert, and furthermore, to not need as much water as other — softer — garden or jungle plants need. Its adaptation is just realizing what to expect from its surroundings, and lowering its own Level Zero. You lower it, and all sorts of unnoticed little clockwork start moving to enable mechanisms and open previously unseen ways to derive satisfaction from the lessened amounts of what you get from life.

The reason I bothered a caveman and brought him in to start this conversation is because he changed with time. As he changed, he came up with innovations which smoothened his life, which made more and more points to strike above Level Zero.

You think he got happier with time?

If Level Zero can sink, it can rise too.

As Level Zero rose, it consumed a dry cave from above it and transferred it below itself (meaning that no longer did a dry cave appeal to slightly more advanced man; it fell beneath his Level Zero when it used to lie above or on Level Zero once.) Level Zero consumed leaf garments, it consumed three years of life expectancy and leaf huts and transferred them below itself, among the things that were not to be stayed content with any more.

Nothing had changed within him during this whole time. No biological advances, nothing. It was the same old caveman, yet now a dry cave made him unhappy, not happy.

Then Level Zero rose again, and consumed a lot more things. It consumed the wheel, the electric bulb, and the telephone. What was a miracle once, making life so much easier, now falls on Level Zero, not above it. You expect it. Then Level Zero consumed TV, then the computer, and now it is close to touching the iPod. (The iPod would still hit above your Level Zero, won’t it? Don’t worry. Ten years from now, it’ll be far below.)

Has man become happier? No. Even today some of his experiences hit above Level Zero, others below, and they mostly cancel each other out. To tell the truth, it’s the ones hitting below Level Zero that seem to have increased, isn’t it so?

Get out of that trance now. Technology and Science have done nothing for us. Society and civilization and government and security and a job and education have done nothing for us. What matters is still the same since the prehistoric ages — you aren’t any more satisfied with life. You buy a new plasma TV, you’re happy with it for half a year when it still hits above your Level Zero every day you come home after work and you see it. But with respect to that TV, your Level Zero inevitably starts to rise, until it reaches the TV. It’s then that you find yourself neither happy nor sad with your TV. You take it for granted. And then, it slips below, or rather, Level Zero rises some more — you’re dissatisfied, and wish you had something better than a stupid plasma TV.

All of our advancements, progress, technology, inventions — yes, they have done all they could, and they have done a huge lot — but they couldn’t do one thing: they couldn’t stop all our Level Zero’s from rising.

Okay, we can figure out why Level Zero falls — it’s to give you ingredients to want to stay alive. But why should it rise?

I’ll quote a movie here that I used to talk about a lot when this blog had just been born: The Matrix.

Morpheus has been captured by Agent Smith and his men. During the time when he is injected with liquids (actually, that was mercury, you know) to break his mental defences and blurt the keys to Zion’s mainframe computer, Agent Smith tells him a few things. He essentially tells Morpheus that however much we worship perfection and ideality, human beings are allergic to the perfect world, utopia, paradise, whatever. And many died when they were put under the illusion that they were living in a sorrowless, painless, effortless world. They couldn’t stand it, and refused to accept the illusion, resulting in death (‘crops’ failing). They had to be given the illusion of living their imperfect lives in their imperfect world to keep them from dying. Agent Smith says that human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.

Okay, that’s one support for Level Zero rising. But, why should this mechanism work? Why should the same system of the universe that enables us to lower our Level Zero in order to survive also not want us to be overtly happy and makes us subconsciously raise Level Zero as more and more points hit above it? To maintain some type of balance? Or do we need a measure of immunity from excessive happiness as much as we need protection from sadness? Think about it.

An important point to add here would be a self-constructed quantitative description of the movement of Level Zero.

The happier a positive experience, the more it induces your expectations to rise. To express this quantitatively, let’s say that the greater the distance of a point in the positive quadrant from Level Zero, the greater will be its tendency to shift Level Zero up. And a similar case for points in the negative quadrant.

So the velocity of Level Zero would be proportional to the sum of the distances of the different points (positive for positive points, negative for negative ones) in the plane of life. So if the whole sum is positive, the velocity is positive, meaning that Level Zero rises. And so on for a negative sum. And in the computation of this velocity, the contribution of a single point is not only on which side of Level Zero it lies, but also how far above or below Level Zero it lies.

Therefore, VLevel Zero α Σxi , where xi is the distance (with sign) of the i th experience point from Level Zero.

           i.e., VLevel Zero = xi , where K is a positive constant.

                  VLevel Zero  > 0  when  Σxi  > 0

                  VLevel Zero  < 0  when  Σxi  < 0

                  VLevel Zero  = 0  when  Σxi  = 0

So, our final visualization of the ever-present Level Zero, in terms of the experiences of a particular person during the course of a day (note the relationship between the intensity of different experiences and their corresponding distances from Level Zero) :



                                 . SALARY RAISE                                     

                                             . HOLIDAY OPPORTUNITY

                                                                                                                                                                         DAUGHTER’S EXAM RESULTS .




                                . WIFE’S NEW FACIAL                                        . NICE DINNER


                                                                              . NEW COMIC STRIP IN NEWSPAPER


————————— . WATCHING TV —————————————————— . OFFICE WORK————————————>




                                                 . CAR BREAKDOWN




                                                                                                                       . FAVOURITE FOOTBALL TEAM LOSING






                                                            . DRUGS IN SON’S ROOM




As we can see, Level Zero gets different velocities everyday. But usually, it won’t change too quickly, because most of these points remain in the plane of Life for considerable time, taking a while to fade away. Your happiness in the salary raise will keep you expectant of life (at least your work-life) for quite a while. Your daughter’s good results will have a nice taste in your memory for a few days. You’ll take many days to recover from discovering drugs in your son’s room. So the points in the plane of life will not be changing much from day to day in a normal person’s normal life. But if you live on the edge, or travel a lot, or are a war reporter, your Level Zero will simply grow crazy as innumerable little points of experience appear everyday on either side of it and jostle for space, fading as quickly, not able to remain important in this crowd of experiences for long. The movement of Level Zero is too fidgety to be predicted. In such a situation, you can never be sure of what to expect from life the next day.

In a dull, average life, Level Zero oscillates lazily, its range predictable.

That’s the Level Zero theory. It explains why some rich people are never happy, why people who have next to nothing or even nothing can be happy. In a widely different situation, it can also be applied to Le Chatelier’s principle concerning chemical equilibria. In a certain chemical equilibrium, say N2 + 3H2 = 2NH3, if you add more nitrogen, more ammonia will be formed. Here also the effort is to maintain a sort of balance. It explains why your muscles develop when you work them. The day you start working your muscles, you gave the plane of your muscle little points of experience that were far from its Level Zero (normal expectation of working and preparation for it). This shifted its Level Zero, moving it among the points of experience so that some lie above and some lie below, canceling each other. What does that mean? That means, if you start working out, your muscle gets experiences of being overstrained, overworked. Within its limits of adjustment, it conditions itself in such a way (shifting of Level Zero) that the net average of its experiences is neutral and lies on or very near Level Zero. Which means, while some experiences can be those of being overworked, there have to be some experiences of going easy to cancel them, even though you are giving the same strain to your muscles as you did on the first day when you overworked it. In other words, the developed muscle can now work more with the same ease, and a certain workout that was strainous once and lay above Level Zero is now easy for it and lies below, so that Σxi becomes smaller, and it may also disappear. Then you can shoot your muscle with even higher experience points (overwork it even more), to raise it again. And so on until the muscle reaches the limit of raising its Level Zero, which is nothing but the level of torture to expect from you and prepare for.

Now we can explain a lot of things by saying that it’s just the tendency of the concerned system to make Σxi small, to move Level Zero among the points so that they cancel each other considerably, lying on either side.

Note that I’ve not tried to propound a new theory. It’s just a new way of looking at things that unifies a lot of different patterns occurring in different processes and giving them a single pattern, a single description. But it’s not an explanation of anything. It’s just the discovery of a repetitive pattern and a description of this pattern in the most general form I found possible, so that it can be applied to varied situations with ease.


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