April 29, 2013
If there were some secret formula for happiness, whoever discovers it would surely make a fortune. The MBA grads had written their final exam. One more day of classes remained. So the students and their prof attempted to tabulate the formula for human happiness. Philosophers have pondered it, poets have mused over it and psychologists have analyzed it. Now the number-crunchers have come up with a profit and loss statement where the bottom line is happiness.
They decided there were three sources of happiness revenue: Genetic, Circumstantial, and Relationships.
Circumstantial happiness was defined as that happiness derived from the accident of birth, such as being born in a well-off country. It was assigned a meagre 10% of the happiness quotient. I know from my own observation that people in the slums of Mumbai are as happy, if not happier, than the residents of Beverly Hills. As long as the basics of food, shelter and security are met, the luxury with which these are addressed only adds an incremental percentage to overall happiness. Other circumstantial factors might included being born male in a patriarchal society. Being heterosexual almost anywhere. Being tall, good looking, and is many places, white.
It turns out that in study after study, these types of factors certainly contribute to an easier life, but they do not in themselves make a person happier or more miserable. I am always amused by people who invest in new noses, boobs, even increasing their height. Initially they experience a boost in happiness, but it declines sharply. It is ironic that their return of happiness turns out to be more short lived than the torturous pain and the financial burden.
In my family we have strong cultural myth that marrying into a good family is vital for a happy life. But now we have the spectacular example Princess Diana to answer that. Despite her high status marriage, we know she was far from happy. It is far preferable being single than trapped in a miserable marriage.
Other common circumstances widely believed as necessary for happiness include: a suitable education, a respectable career (which of course brings with it designer clothes and fancy cars). Yes, they add something to the happiness quotient initially, but soon the novelty wears out. The human brain is highly elastic, hence it adapts to the new circumstances. I was impressed that these newly minted MBAs were aware that the euphoria of their achievement will fade. I am glad they are prepared for the reality that in a few years they will be no happier than they were prior to spending the $100 grand in tuition.
Having children then, will that make a person fulfilled for life? It seems the happiness that children bring is offset by the lifelong worry for their safety, the stress of good parenting and financial worries of providing for them. I cannot imagine the horror of those parents whose children go missing. Add to that fear, parents have to worry about what kind of world their children are about to inherit. Food shortages, water shortages, even breathable air will be a luxury in the not too distant future. On balance, the asset of having children are entirely offset by the liabilities. Childless people live as long as parents, and they report being just as fulfilled.
Relationships: The grads decided that a whopping 40% of the happiness revenue comes from non-material things such as being connected to others through family, friendships, and hobbies. This includes volunteer work which feeds a feeling of worth and of giving back to the community.
Genetic: To which they assigned the remaining 50% of happiness revenue. Basically, they argued, some people are born psychologically better equipped to be more happy than others. Some are naturally optimistic, cheerful, easy-going, while others are more serious, rigid, predisposed to depression or anger. The grads saw these as unchangeable, and hence genetic.
Yikes! A bit too fatalistic. Perhaps we do not come into this world with our personality traits cast in stone. Perhaps we learn them as a response to whatever happens to us in life. But that does not mean they are unchangeable. The grads had assigned a whopping 40% share of happiness to Relationships, but I wonder if they had stopped to dig a little deeper? Don’t all relationships (not just romantic ones) teach us much about ourselves and our character traits? Relationships shed a light on our unconscious habits, traits, feelings and bias. In that dance to make relationships work, we are compelled to examine and change, to adapt, to learn new skills and traits. We mature because of our spouses, we grow to appreciate diversity because of our colleagues and neighbours.
Our minds, if we give them attention, can be rewired and reprogrammed. The grads themselves admitted that the human brain is highly elastic. So why would the disposition to happiness be an exception to this?
Rather, isn’t happiness the default setting of the human mind? Whenever an emotion or situation takes us away from this default we describe ourselves as being “upset”, “disturbed.” When we are angry, we are “unbalanced”. Fear makes us “unhinged.” Insults make us “out-of sorts.” Just as health is the default of the body, happiness is the default of the mind.
If that is true, then surely happiness lies somewhere below the surface turbulence of the mind. Rather than trying to quell the disturbances, shouldn’t we be searching the still, calm depths of awareness? Isn’t that where we might discover happiness?
April 15, 2013
Undoubtedly, all of us have been moved by compassion at one time or another: a little girl walking silently with a bruised eye, an old lady collapsing in front you. An aching rises from deep within and it compels our hands to aide. Overwhelmed by sadness for another, we forget ourselves. We scarcely notice that the wall between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ is gone. His pain is my pain. Moving beyond the dictionary definition, I wonder if compassion can bring about a sharing of emotions other than sympathy and pity? Perhaps even, joy?
I now know that it can.
There I was in the small-town campus of an esteemed university. The fresh batch of MBAs, already suited and heeled for the graduation ceremony, were showing off to their families the rooms where they had garnered their expensive education. Mostly South Asian immigrant families much like mine. Mothers in saris with proud, glinting eyes. Paunchy fathers with worn-down limbs, no doubt, from years of loving sacrifice. I have seen these types of looks many times before. Their glowing smiles proclaim: my son the doctor, my daughter the Harvard Ph.D. And yet, amidst all this obvious joy, I was struck by a profound grief.
While I understood their emotions, I was an outsiders to them. Something prevented me from fully empathizing. I had no experience of parents supportive enough to cough up 100 grand in tuition. I do not know what it is to be encouraged at home to succeed. In high school I had been academically gifted. All of my teachers unanimously agreed that I had great potential for worldly success. But it never happened. The grief I was feeling was for that high school teen still trapped inside of me. The emotion was that of self-pity–an impotent and indulgent emotion, at once isolating and debilitating.
As I sat in the convocation hall, listening to the well-prepared speeches, I thought to myself: Is there a way in which this uncomfortable feeling of self-pity can be channelled into something positive? Is there a way to so wholly empathize with their joy? To use this group sense of accomplishment to extinguish my long-denied desire?
It turns out there is. And it wasn’t even difficult.
Luckily, in my volunteer work I am used to putting myself in others’ shoes. During the practice of empathy, there is wonderful self-forgetting that happens. It brings about a call to action without the pettiness of the ego. So why not empathize consciously, I thought? Why not deliberately burst the bubble between ‘me’ and ‘them’? I summoned every fiber of my awareness to this very idea. A surge of joy immediately filled me. My hands moved, as though by compassion, not to aide, but compelled to applaud wholeheartedly the accomplishments of these strangers. For a moment, all of their joy was also my joy. That teenager inside me had his wish fulfilled. (And it didn’t cost me a 100 grand either.)
When you think about it, this is not a very difficult skill to master. In fact we all do it without realizing it. Sports fan routinely break that bubble with the players and share their rapture. Skilled actors on the stage or on screen are able to make us feel what they feel. The other day on the subway I saw a sleazy, old man leering at a teenage couple in the throes of passion. He was visibly aroused and I realized that he was using the mechanics of compassion as, well, literally, co-passion.
I bet we all remember where we were during 9-11. On that day we North Americans were as though one mind. While we are not strangers to this bursting of the ‘me’ bubble and sharing the feeling of those around us, it happens to us because of forces beyond our control. We depend on others to make it happen.
What if we were able to unite with the minds of others at will? At even the most mundane of events? Might we then be able to override other useless emotion? Blow them apart forever? Emotions such as jealousy, boredom, disgust, loathing and contempt. Self-centered emotions which serve no purpose but they drain our energy all the same. Emotions such as self-pity seem attractive because they make us feel special, but really all they do is isolate us.
To be always connected and never lonely, no matter where, no matter when–now that really is special.
April 8, 2013
I thought I saw George Clooney last week in the Emergency Room at my local hospital. There he was, in his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, all six-feet of him, towering above the rest of the staff. This doctor was so unspeakably handsome that for a moment I thought I was on the set of the old T.V. show, E.R.
From his speech and manner it was obvious this doctor was well born. With all that going for him, did he further need the status of ‘doctor’? In a moment of envy, I questioned whether this young man deserved so very much in life?
For that matter, do any of us ever deserve what we get in life? “Why me?” we ask whenever something tragic happens. The unspoken other half of that is, “Why not to someone else?” (Perhaps to that young, good-looking doctor).
Because the reality is, bad things do happen to good people. Compassionate people sometimes get cheated. Kindergarten children are massacred for no reason. Good guys do finish last. And people do get away with murder. Crime does pay (why else would so many people indulge in it?).
It feels like no one ever gets his just desserts. All of which is unsettling because we have an irrefutable sense that we are good and thus deserve all the good things in life, but none of its negativity.
If however, one has lived life for a number of years, one comes to realize how utterly selfish and utterly irrational that notion is. If we are lucky, we have matured enough to admit our imperfections. We are gracious enough to accept that others are also good and deserving.
However, it takes a huge leap to accept that life is just not fair. Cosmically, all life is random chance. People are not perfect. I have always liked how the weavers of Oriental carpets deliberately leave an imperfection in its design because, “Only Allah is perfect.” Then am I wrong to pursue perfection? Am I simply being vain? Perhaps it is envy of people like that young doctor that compels me to always better myself?
I have decided it is neither. See, the problem with the George Clooney types and the Princess Diana types is that their perfection seems unearned. There were born perfect. They won the genetic lottery in terms of physical beauty, as well as social status. Were I to sit here and do nothing but resent them, that would be envy. It is also envy that makes judgements about whether they deserve what they have or not. Oh, it would be easy to emulate them in superficial ways–copy the hairstyle, his clothes sense, and speech. Those types of pursuits would be an act of vanity.
But to strive to be the best you that you can possibly be, to my mind, falls into another league altogether. One where there is striving to learn from whatever life throws at you. Where there is that drive that pushes you to pick up newer and fresher coping skills. To me that type of pursuit of perfection is about survival.
This was really brought home this week at the homeless shelter. Some of the men there are destitute because they are just out of prison. They usually request severe haircuts in the barber’s chair: Mohawks, bald heads– one man even wanted his eyebrows shaved off. He fussed and preened over his Mohawk, making me adjust it four times. I first thought it was vanity, but then I realized looking menacing is a survival necessity for them. They live the law of the jungle at every moment. So perhaps the quest for perfection is hard wired into us by evolution, and not about vanity or envy.
Out of the jungle we compete for grades, we compete for jobs, for spouses. We are compelled to be faster, stronger, smarter, prettier just to keep connected.
I have been lucky enough to meet, every once in a while, patients as inspiring as Mr. Lewis. He is in his eighties and this is his fourth long-term hospitalization within the past two years. The nurses fight to have him in their care. Why? He is never not cheerful. He is by no means passive or fatalistic, he simply chooses to accept his misfortune with a positive, undefeated attitude.
Mr. Lewis is more perfect in my mind than that handsome, young doctor. He reminds me somewhat of that great poem by that Indian born Englishman, Rudyard Kipling, If.-
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too….
….Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!
His poem, echoes word for word the passages from the Bhagwad Geeta on the “Man of Perfection.” (Chapter II) (Except for the bit about you’ll be a man, my son.)
It seems reasonable to me that if life is inherently unfair, random, and a mixture of positivity and negatively, the only choice we have left to us is what we do with what is thrown our way. To strive for perfection, for me, is to evolve and learn from my particular circumstance. The way I see it, the misfortunes of life are your pre-payment for wisdom. If you forfeit your right to wisdom, you have squandered your misery.
If my near-death has taught me anything it is that perfection of character is the only pursuit without envy or vanity. It is purely about survival. It is the only type of perfection that can never be snatched away from you.