Relativism and Importance of Non-Moving Reference Points in Life

Extreme joy of a fresh pair of shoes for a poor kid

Every now and then I find it really important to remind myself of the relativity of life; to make sure that I am not lost in my current life set-up; to occasionally step out of my bubble even momentarily; to remember the journey so far with all its ups and downs; and to appreciate today and this moment of time with gratitude and perspective by putting my life in the context of my past and others who are living around me.

We often don’t realize this but some of the most important feelings and metrics in our lives including happiness, love, joy, wealth, pleasure, fear, success, and even taste, are all relative. In fact, there really aren’t that many non-relative feelings in the world. And in order to have a more well rounded, consistent, and truthful feeling it is critical to measure them against a non-moving reference point.

I have found that as an impatient, Type A, always-in-the-move and “eager to change” person if I continuously also change my reference point and measure myself against ever evolving expectations I am often left with a bit of continuous dissatisfaction in life.

What do I mean by non-moving reference point?

Almost everything in our life is measured against a reference point, and often change of reference or simple awareness of this reference can change the basis of the measurement itself, and with it bring new perspectives.

We are inherently trained in life to get a “higher score” and pursue “the future”. When we unlock this future we forget the past, and our supposedly higher scored new set-up completely replaces our old habits and situation. This is all great and in fact required for motivating and cultivating growth but the danger is that we often either forget or move our original reference point in this process, and that makes us lose touch with reality. We tend to judge our feelings based on this new set-up and this new environment instead of reminding ourselves of what we used to have in the past.

How come we keep moving the goal post and create so much anxiety as a result?

Ironically, one of the very first concepts we learn in school is to measure against a reference point (remember first time you heard about measuring distance with a ruler?). We learned that in order to measure you need a well defined scale and a non-moving reference point. Moving the measurement reference from 0 cm to 10 cm half way through your problem was a rookie mistake and would have resulted in miscalculation and misjudgment.

Not surprisingly life is the same way. Just like how quantitative measurements are relative based on a scale and a reference point, life measurements are also very relative and dependent on your reference point, context, and therefore perspective.

It is very easy to find examples to support this argument. You can undoubtedly find people from all walks of life living in a wide spectrum of conditions that feel happy, successful, and loved. At the same time, you can find examples of people that by all societal absolute definitions are supposed to be happy, successful, and blissful, but are still unhappy, and feel unsatisfied. They are chasing the unreachable — the absolute definition of happy, success, and blissful, and they will never reach their destination because there is always something better to pursue.

What is missing there is the appropriate frame of reference. A “successful” individual can still feel like a looser if they are measuring their success against the next big thing, while a self-proclaimed looser can feel like a total success if they are measuring their success against an insignificant achievement.

The secret in being content is realizing that no matter how you feel, you can manipulate your feeling by simply changing your reference point. If you choose the wrong reference point you might feel very dissatisfied, but picking a reference point that puts things in perspective will most likely ground your feelings. There is immense power in realizing that by changing that reference point you could also change those feelings.

I believe we would be collectively happier, more grateful, humble, and compassionate if we were all conscious of our references, relative judgments, and as a result could put this very moment in life into context and perspective.

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Payam Banazadeh

Entrepreneur, CEO @ Capella Space, and recently an amateur blogger of life and experiences.