Harsh Goenka on how to smile in times of trouble
It was around the 15th day of lockdown, when I re-watched one of my all-time favourite movies, Life is Beautiful. Viewing the film after a few years and amidst this lockdown, the story took on a whole new meaning. I was struck by the simplicity and profoundness of the message. Guido, (the Italian shopkeeper who is thrown into a concentration camp along with his little son) had chosen only to see the positive, however minuscule it may have been. And used his imagination and humour, despite the horrific realities of the concentration camp, to shelter his son from the cruelty and tragedies that surrounded them, braving punishment, disease and death. It showed me how beautiful and indomitable the human spirit is. How little it took for the duo to remain in high spirits. How could they be happy amidst all that hardship?
It got me thinking about what happiness really means. All the sages from time immemorial have advised us to slow down, step off the roller-coaster to understand life and happiness. Well, the coronavirus did just that for us – brought us to a grinding halt. Like all of you, I have spent the past three months within the confines of my home. Four months ago this would have been utterly inconceivable, and yet here we are. This compulsory pause has opened our eyes and minds to feel and sense a lot of subtle elements of our life that we had lost sight of – things that bring happiness.
As Deepak Chopra had said, focus on the positive whatever the circumstances. Most importantly, we have all been brought to spend more time with our families. Through this forced togetherness, we have rediscovered the warmth and affection of bonding, and the comfort of being with people who are closest to us. We now realise how much we had drifted away even while living together.
As our lives have slowed down, we have suddenly become more aware of the simple pleasures in life and finding joy in them. We notice the clear blue sky a lot more, we hear the birds, the rustling leaves, cherish the sea breeze and even discuss the brightness of the moon. We have begun to look at our days not in terms of dates, appointments and time-slots, but by the differing hues of the sun as it traverses the day.
This may sound odd, but I am sure many will agree with me that with the lockdown and social distancing, our relationships even with those elsewhere have become stronger. We have spoken over the phone to people whom we have not contacted in years, and re-established friendships. Underlying this phenomenon is the fact that we have begun to value people in our lives more.
We spend a lifetime doing the things we do to be truly happy in the future. That future is where you and I are now. Senior citizens. A stage in life when our bodies begin to exhibit the strains and stresses of a life spent building a home, a business, a career and so on. This is a stage in life when we could be facing a completely different set of challenges, mostly centred around health. We could be driven to think of this as a phase of suffering. Like Guido, many before us have risen to that challenge and shown that it is possible to maintain purpose and meaning in life even in the face of significant hardship. Our bodies change as we age, even when we eat healthy, exercise and try to take good care of ourselves. Sight, hearing, bones, joints, balance, mobility, memory, continence, strength and stamina — they will never be what they once were. Like a doctor once told his patient, “All my patients your age who are free of pains, are dead.”
Difficult times teach us some of the most valuable lessons in life. They will come in all shapes, sizes and intensity, but truly the choice to cross over from despair to happiness lies within us. Fifty per cent of being happy comes from how we are wired – our genes. Ten per cent comes from external circumstances. The remaining 40 per cent comes from the choices we make. It is this 40 per cent that we should focus on. If only we can align those choices to what can lead to happiness, we would be on the right track.
Most people would assume that I would be amongst the happiest people, and for the most part I am… after all, I was born into comfortable wealth and have all the advantages of the privileged. Yet on occasion I have observed a feeling of emptiness, even when I have achieved a milestone or accomplished a task well. I remember once after a particularly long and gruelling bout of negotiations which ended favourably, I was rather surprised at my emotions. I was so sure that success would bring me the greatest happiness, instead my jubilation didn’t sustain too long. At that time my father gave me some very sage advice, which I follow to this day. This was from the Bhagwad Gita – let your focus be on your actions. Do your best and do not worry about the outcome.
Why is the pursuit so complicated? Indian seers have for millennia described the paths to true happiness through a deeper understanding of concepts such as compassion, doing without expectations, destiny and meditation. The idea of deep breathing originated in India thousands of years ago. Studies show that deep breathing changes brain circuitry if done regularly. It brings concentration and a sense of calm. Yet in India we have abandoned our ethos of meditation and seem to have found more satisfaction in our smartphones. Be it every religion and philosophy, Buddha to Gandhi, Aristotle to the latest self-help guru… all have tried to define happiness and emphasise its importance. We all seem to be searching – yet, time and again our solutions appear to be those that give only short-lived shots of instant gratification. The Covid-19 lockdown has offered us a chance to reclaim those paths.
There are countries where the paths to happiness are more cherished than academic or financial achievements. These cultures value human relationships, physical well-being and nature more than the modern virtues that define success. In Colombia for example, many roads are closed weekly to promote walking, cycling and skating, and cities are laid out such that people criss-cross and interact. Despite its lack of prosperity, it is high upon the happiness scale. And Bhutan is a shining example where the measurement of Happiness is an integral part of its governance.
In our quest for lasting happiness, there are some low-hanging fruits one could try and work upon.
The first step is to give ourselves the permission to be human – to acknowledge the fact that we have emotions, positive and negative, and that we must accept emotions as normal and a very human thing to feel. It is equally important to accept that the next person is the same as us, though they may have a different set of emotions. So perhaps the first step is acceptance of ourselves and everyone as human beings with feelings.
A big enemy is worry. As we age we tend to worry a lot more than we ever did. From worrying about children to worrying about finances to even the smallest of things like a telephone ring, we become anxious people. It is important to give up on distractions that make us say and do silly things and instead focus on what is important to us. Why should we at all worry about things that might or might not happen?
And by worrying we do not control the outcome – all it does is create unnecessary anxiety.
A Variety of Activities
We have to cultivate a variety of activities that can keep us engaged. We need to have a new way of looking at our self – as someone who continues to pursue and enjoy a variety of activities within our limitations. Yes, it is true that many of us cannot climb a ladder or cycle or trek. But we still can go to a museum, click photographs, repair broken stuff or have some fun with our dog. Movies still enthuse us, as do plays and books and web browsing. Technology is also helping us by bringing in various digital tools at our disposal. Never mind that words or spelling may temporarily escape us. We can always ask Google or Siri to fill in the blanks.
Dealing with Loneliness
Loneliness is perhaps the single biggest problem of old age. We must all cultivate and nurture healthy, intimate relationships. Happiness is very high in countries that focus on genuine relationships, where differences are accepted without acrimony or pressure and there is a great degree of tolerance. Effort has to be made to establish a network of friends and relatives, both old and young alike, with whom one can engage in meaningful conversations. With the young there is always something we can barter. They may know how to reset our cellphones or find channels on our television, and we can help them with our wisdom.
Creativity is not limited to young people. At any age, it can open people up to new possibilities, add richness to life and sharpen the mind. Even when all is lost, our capacity, to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose, is not lost. We should try something new that is either an extension of what we did before or that takes us in a new direction. For example, if you have been a dancer all your life, you could reinvent yourself as a choreographer when you can no longer dance.
It helps to pursue a healthy lifestyle of wholesome food, daily exercise and supportive social connections. Of course, advancing age has taken — and will continue to take — its incremental toll. Exercise releases endorphins which make us feel good. We may often wake up wobbly and our backs may hurt. We must nevertheless take care of our bodies to the best extent we can. Every simple thing counts, even wearing sensible shoes and gripping the handrail better going up and down stairs.
Gratitude is another vital key to unlocking happiness. Expression of gratitude and appreciation, in whatever form you prefer, promotes positivity. It is known to strengthen the immune system, especially when, as a group or in the family, you make regular efforts to showcase what was enjoyable and what you feel grateful for.
Happily Ever After
All these are but a few of the things we can do to finally achieve that 40% happiness that comes from our actions and our outlook on life. It is still a long drive ahead, we have just left the city and entered the highway. There will be fewer twists and turns, fewer traffic signals, less overtaking and fewer ups and downs. With the right mindset we will be able to see the bright blue horizon up in the distance. So enjoy the rest of the drive. Someone once asked me about retiring and I said, “I have run a tyre company all my life, why should I think of … re-tiring!”
Harsh Goenka is Chairman of RPG Enterprises. Recently he topped a list of India Inc captains, ranked on the basis of their social authority. He is very active on Twitter, and is known for his inspirational, information and often humorous take on life and events. He tweets at @hvgoenka
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