There is a lot to understand about how our mind works, rather how we can make it work for happiness. Happiness largely depends on how our mind views life. Here is an account of how we can guide our mind to ensure happiness & wellbeing.
My friend was sharing his annual appraisal conversation with his HR head. He is a Vice-President in a reputed and progressive corporation. He looked happy but at the same time slightly at odd and sad as well. His sadness was clouding his happiness. I know him as diligent, hardworking and a man of integrity. He often shared with me how day-in and day-out, he had been working for his company and added to achieve target and deadlines. He enjoys reputation and recognition from his colleagues and bosses. I was indeed surprised that a person like him can also be sad, least to say about his appraisal. What made him sad? He was happy with the appraisal, raise, recognition and whole lot of good things spoken about him. However, what made him sad was the one-liner in the end which his HR head shared and that was indicating the ‘scope of improvement’. Alas! What scope of improvement, he is doing it just perfect and company recognizes this. Could it not like ‘keep on doing good work’? I have sympathy with my friend. Many of us would like to sympathize with him. However, the fact is that somehow our mind picks up ‘negative’ things faster than the ‘positive’ and loves to cry over it. Scope of improvement should have been as fine as the good words, but no, – this made him sad in spite of all good things spoken about him. His mind picked this up naturally above all other good things.
Mind’s Cognitive Bias
We often experience such moments. Our mind does recall and remember wrong things more than the good things. This is not without reason that a wrong and bad news spread faster than the good news. A teacher showed a white paper sheet to his class and asked – what do you see? The entire class said – a piece of white paper. Then the teacher put a black spot on the paper and asked again – what do you see? This time the class responded – a black spot! In life, our mind somehow is naturally trained to pick up black spot and keep on thinking about wrong that might happen to us. Haven’t we say – have a safe journey, to our friends and relatives rather than saying – have an enjoyable journey! Aren’t we act more like a risk averse, rather than risk takers?
Information processing asymmetry is a good thing for us. Otherwise, if we act like a pure scientific and rational human being, we will have to deal with an overwhelming dose of information before taking any decision. This also suggests that we can train our mind to change habit, which will have clue for our happiness.
Being a stoic
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
The Serenity Prayer; Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, American Theologian in 1932
We want to change the things which are not in our control while we do not change the things which are under our control. Being a stoic, means we understand the difference between ‘circle of concern’ and ‘circle of influence’. I was addressing a group of young college going students in a remote, sub-urban place. I asked the class whether they have developed proficiency in computer operation. This is important for employability. Almost the entire class said – No; as the place does not get electricity and it is impossible to keep computer. I got pensive, wanted to know problems they are facing in studies. The class came up with a large list of problems which included bad roads, teachers not available, principal not doing enough, government not paying attention and so on. Then I saw a boy from the last bench raising his hands. I thought he is going to add one more in the list. I asked him – what do you have to add in this list? He said – No, I do not want to add anything in the list; I just wanted to tell you that I can operate computer. It came to me as a big surprise. I got curious and asked him to explain how he knows computer while rest of his classmates are saying that it is not possible to work on computer. He shared a very interesting insight. He said – I observed a pattern in power outing. It does come for industrial supply, generally around mid-night and goes off early morning, but of course not every day. I asked my father to get me a PC and I switch it on when power comes mid-night and switch it off in the morning. That is how I learnt to operate computer. We can clearly see that while rest of the class had a larger ‘circle of concern’, this boy had a larger ‘circle of influence’. Tragedy of life is that we do not change things we control but we seek to change things, which are not in our control.
Being stoic means, we believe in the following precepts:
- The only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness.
- We are small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to gain from trying to resist these larger processes, except anger, frustration, and disappointment.
- There are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Things we do have control over, is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.
Control Judgement to Control Emotions
Our emotions are the project of our judgements; it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. For example, you are on the road in a car and someone is honking from behind. You think this is a mindless behavior and it makes you upset and angry. You feel angry not because someone is honking but because you think, he is honking on me! Your ego gets hurt, which makes you angry. Why are you thinking that he is honking on you? There may be some issue with his horn, he may be in emergency for that matter or he is just honking on whole lot of traffic, why should I get hurt.
This requires a sound mental health. We do focus a lot on physical health; it is easily understood and recognized everywhere. We have gym, physical trainer and so on. Unfortunately, there is no such recognition for training in mental health. Rather, it is taken as a sort of disease and a taboo to talk about mental health. There is no provision of mental health training in our schools and colleges. Apathy towards mental health can be a perennial source of unhappiness.
Mindfulness to bridge ‘Attention Deficit’
Why some people are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety while others are not? Stress and anxiety seem to be ruling the world. About 74 per cent Indians are reported to be suffering from stress and 88 per cent from anxiety. This can be fetal, may cause big loss of wellbeing. Researchers at the University of California have found that depression at a young age could lead to cognitive decline in later years. Those who had depression or anxiety were 24 per cent more likely to have delayed medical procedures and had a 12 per cent greater chance of losing their job. It is not without reason why so much money is being put into research to understand life, wellbeing and happiness. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is known to have donated $370 million to aging research. Jeff Bezos (Amazon), along with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel are known to have invested in a startup called Unity Biotechnology that works in the field of anti-ageing. Celebrities like Goldie Hawn (Actress) and Google’s Sergey Brin have been part of Grand Challenge in Health Longevity, which aims to ‘end aging forever’, already invested a billion dollars in California Life Company (Calico), part of Google’s Alphabet. Larry Page is believed to be one of the contributors in the founding of ‘Calico’. What makes us live longer? What makes us live well?
Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds and the affiliated non-profit Healthy Minds Innovations, owes the loss of wellbeing to distractibility and attention deficit. He asked his audience – what are you doing right now? His audience replied – we are here and listening to you. He then asked another question – where is your mind at this moment? More than 60 per cent of his audience admitted that their minds are not here, it is somewhere else. He calls this phenomenon as ‘attention deficit’. The larger the attention deficit, the greater is the anxiety. Greater anxiety leads to bigger loss of wellbeing and hence happiness. Living a mindful life and practicing mindfulness help in bridging the attention deficit and thereby reduces anxiety, enhances happiness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. In simple word, mindfulness means living in present.
HAT for you
There are three powerful nudges worth looking at – Habit, Attitude and Thought (HAT). We are a product of our habits. Our day-today routine, practice and habit makes us into what we are. It can make us weaker, it can make us stronger. It can make us sad, it can make us happy. We become what we practice, and what we get in life is what we become. Life does not give us what we are not. Life gives us everything, sooner or later, what we really become and deserve. Attitude is an indicator of success and the protoplasm of happiness. How we take life depends on the attitude we carry towards it. Thoughts can make us or break us. How we live life is determined by what we think who we are. Our consciousness determines our existence.
If we have to list five things to be embraced and put in action in the year 2022, for a better and happy life, the list can be as follows:
- Practice mindfulness (adopt it as part of habit to spend at least 15 minutes on mindfulness practice)
- List your areas of influence (things which you can/should change and you are not changing)
- Control your judgement, act like a stoic
- Prepare a routine (at least roughly)
- Focus on present and positive actions
The story of happiness will continue. Look for the next blog, Part 3. Until then, wish you Happiness!