Be the 4th Monkey

There was a classic scientific experiment where researchers gave a monkey a banana. Not surprisingly, the monkey was happy.

In the next phase, they gave a second monkey two bananas and he too was happy. However, this time there was a twist. After giving him the two bananas they took one away, leaving him with only one banana. The happy monkey was now demonstrably pissed off.

And that, in a nutshell, explains most of human behavior. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, including our past and future selves. If we think we are doing better, we are happy. If not, we are upset.

While this next part did not happen in the experiment, picture a 3rd monkey who is able to reflect on his own condition. Imagine the 3rd monkey gets two bananas, loses one and pauses. He can understand that he started with zero bananas and can be happy with one banana, despite the fact that he once had two.

Most humans behave as the second monkey does. Those few who are self-reflective can be the 3rd monkey and live much happier lives.

And thus ended the story I told my daughters to encourage them to reflect on their own lives and not be caught up in what others have.

But in discussing this story at the dinner table one night, we realized there is also a 4th monkey. The 4th monkey is even more self-aware than the 3rd. She realizes that she is part of a grand game, which, at this moment, includes a researcher who is trying to manipulate her into being either happy or upset by messing with her bananas. She also knows that her state of mind is hers to determine and she can choose it, regardless of how many bananas she has at the moment. She can even be happy if they take them all away.

Hence our family’s advice: Be the 4th monkey. 

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