A few lessons on happiness after a lifetime of chasing it

lipped from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/mindset-matters/a-few-lessons-on-happiness-after-a-lifetime-of-chasing-it/

Ravi Venkatesan

Ravi Venkatesan

Ravi Venkatesan, author of the book “Conquering the Chaos: Win in India, Win Everywhere”, published by Harvard Business Press is the former Chairman of Microsoft India and Cummins India. Venkatesan is a director on the boards of Volvo, Infosys, and a member of the advisory boards of Bunge Ltd and Marico Innovation Foundation, and a fellow at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership. He also serves on Harvard Business School’s Global Alumni Board. Venkatesan is a founder and Chairman of Social Venture Partners India, a network of engaged leaders attempting to address complex social issues through venture philanthropy. Under Venkatesan’s leadership between 2004 and 2011, India became Microsoft’s second-largest geography and one of its fastest growing markets. Microsoft India was rated one of the country’s most respected companies, among the most admired brands, and one of India’s best employers. Ravi has a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, a Masters in Engineering from Purdue University and a MBA from Harvard Business School where he was a Baker Scholar. Ravi was awarded Purdue University’s Distinguished Engineering Alumnus award for the year 2011, and the Distinguished Alumnus award by the Indian Institute of Technology in 2003. Ravi is married to Sonali Kulkarni. They live in Bangalore, India. Follow Ravi and join the discussions on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RaviVenkatesan01?ref=hl#!/RaviVenkatesan01 Twitter: @rvenk LESS … MORE

The deepest desire of every person, perhaps every being, is to be happy. Some people are lucky and are happy by nature; they have something psychologists call a ‘high set point’. The rest of us have to find happiness. Fairly early in life, we develop our theory of happiness, that is, a belief about what will make us happy. This theory is usually unconscious but very deep and drives all our actions. One common theory of happiness is called ‘the missing tile theory’. We focus all our attention on what is missing and believe if only we had ‘this’ we would be happy. The ‘this’ can be good grades, getting to a good college, finding a good job, meeting the right partner, getting a promotion or living a certain lifestyle. The problem is that this tile is a moving goalpost; as soon as you get what you’re missing, you quickly focus on the next missing tile. Happiness is forever postponed.

Another theory which a lot of ambitious, high-achievers fall for is that success will bring happiness. As a child, good behaviour and academic excellence attracts praise and love. We like that feeling and quickly get addicted to it. Before long you are on a treadmill of hard work leading to achievements and rewards. Success brings some joy but like a drug-addict, you need bigger and bigger doses of success to feel good. No matter what you achieve, others seem to be more successful. This phenomenon is called the ‘hedonic treadmill’ and, instead of happiness, it results in a mid-life crisis. At some point you realise this is not sustainable. I was a classic victim of this theory until I decided to get off the treadmill nearly 15 years ago. Since then I’ve made a lot of effort to get to the bottom of what happiness really means. I’ve learned a few things.

l First, happiness has nothing to do with what you have or don’t have, whether you are successful or not. Psychologists and philosophers have concluded that happiness is ‘synthetic’ or manufactured by the mind. “The mind is its own place and in itself can make heaven of hell and hell of heaven,” said the poet John Milton. In one famous study, one person wins a lottery while another has their arm amputated at about the same time; six months later both are at the same level of happiness they were at before the events. I recently met Shalini Saraswathi who literally overnight lost all four of her limbs and her baby. Yet she didn’t give up and today runs marathons, works at a tech company and is a motivational speaker. Far from being crushed by her losses, she is radiant, laughing. Mind boggling! So, one key to happiness is to tame the mind through meditation, to learn to dissociate from one’s thoughts, cultivate abundance and gratitude. This is what spiritual traditions have been advocating for millennia.

l Second, as long as you focus on yourself, you cannot be happy. All kinds of negative thoughts including comparisons, envy and regret well up and can overwhelm you. The only reliable way to keep these at bay is to lose yourself in activities or commitments. When you are running or playing tennis or singing, you tend to lose yourself for a bit. It’s the same when you immerse yourself in something other than yourself whether that be raising a child, helping others, building a business or creating something. For a while you forget time, you forget you exist; it’s a phenomenon called ‘flow’. It’s impossible to feel down when you are in flow.

l A third requirement for happiness I’ve realised is freedom. Freedom means different things to different people. What matters most to me is freedom from want. Freedom in terms of how I spend my time and with whom I spend it. And most importantly, free from a need for approval or affirmation. Over this decade I made intentional choices to set myself free. I decided to walk away from a fancy job to become a social entrepreneur and writer.

I learned to stop craving the spotlight and the need to be relevant. I regained control over my time and how I spent it. Whew!

l A fourth driver is people. We are the sum of the few people we hang out most with. So, you consciously want to be around people who are positive, who accept you unconditionally and inspire you to become a better version of you. Joy and negativity are both more contagious than Covid.

l Finally, happiness comes from cultivating acceptance. “Life is under no obligation to give you what you expect.” This is what the late actor Irrfan Khan calmly said when he was diagnosed with cancer. The fact is that life will not always or even largely go as we expect. As you reach mid-life, even if things are going well, the thought occurs, “Is this all there is? I had hoped for so much more.” Sometimes really bad things happen — illnesses, mistakes or losses — and it doesn’t feel fair. It is not how you thought life would play out. Why is this happening to me? “Why me?” is the wrong question, I learnt. “Why not you? What makes you so special that bad things happen only to other people,” asked my friend Anu when I moaned to her. It does not matter what you expect from life but rather what does life expect from you. Simply put, happiness comes from wanting what you get rather than getting what you want.

Happiness, it turns out, is exactly what all spiritual traditions tell us. It is simply a state of mind. It lies within us and is always within our grasp. But it often takes a lifetime of seeking to find that out.


Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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