One of my friends recently gifted me a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project. In my lifetime, I have read quite a few books on happiness and I read about the topic whenever I get a chance. What’s refreshing about her book is that it’s a well-researched experiment on herself. She did the research all by herself, organized her thoughts and made a one-year ‘implementation plan’, prioritized contributors to happiness that she thought were most important, and each month, she researched as well as implemented a single contributor (e.g., increase love), and then put them all together in the final month of the year. I like people who walk their talk. Her book is a rich source of references on happiness, some of which I knew and some very new to me. Gretchen Rubin introduced me to the concept of a koan. I am inspired to make a list of my own koans, and I plan to blog about them in the coming weeks. Feel free to look up what koans are if you are really curious. I should not give away any more of her book for risk of spoiling it for you.
My own happiness project grew very intuitively and organically, without any pre-meditated plan. It has been ongoing since my second year medical school, and it was borne out of necessity. I have always been sensitive to the idea of happiness in life because of exposure to the opposite in early life. I have seen a friend’s father commit suicide, when I was ten or eleven. A few years later, another suicide by a family friend who used to tell us about his unpublished manuscripts in mathematics and how hard it is to gain acceptance in his field. After my psychiatry rotation in the second year of my medical school, I decided I should become a psychiatrist and help with this societal problem. One of my best friends and I decided to stay back on campus that summer and do research. She on a project in general surgery, and me on a project in psychiatry. I chose to interview all patients admitted to the hospital for attempted (but obviously failed) suicide. After interviewing seventeen patients that summer when everyone except my best friend, I, and a few others were spending time with their family, a few things were obvious. Those who attempted suicide were either seriously mentally ill (e.g., schizophrenics who had voices telling them to do it, those with major depression who sank into deep hopelessness because of uncontrolled chemical imbalance in their brains) and needed medical treatment, or those who did not have sufficient ability or help or support to work through life’s usual problems (e.g., failed love, family members not showing up for important events in their life, deep debt). My best friend wasn’t enough to help me through the sad feelings I started having. So, I went up to my professor and talked about how I couldn’t handle it any more. He was very understanding and transferred the project to a senior resident to finish it. I went home late that summer and did my usual summer favorite things, tanked up emotionally and came back to third year of medical school for more. Life has got to be better than what these patients were experiencing! Far better!! The world is a very beautiful place, and the vast majority of people are good, kind people. What more, happy people are safe people!
The project lasted my entire adult life, and it’s ongoing. What worked for me at one time didn’t work for me at other times, but I do have a large menu to look up each time I don’t feel happy enough. I have read whatever I came across about happiness and sadness, listened to a lot of happiness/ spiritual gurus including Dalai Lama, Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, Wynne Dyer, Sadhguru, and Deepak Chopra. I have tried different activities and have a reasonable idea what makes me happy and what doesn’t make me happy. In the course of my adult life, I have also interacted with numerous people and developed a pretty good idea of what I like about certain interactions and what I don’t like. I learn something new about myself and others every day.
Here are my happiness mantras. They are generated through everything I have done and learnt so far, and they have worked for me. If there is a single source for the mantra, I mentioned the source.
- Keep a running list of favorite activities, things and people and go to them frequently.
- I am anchored in me, even if I am responsible for taking care of others around me.
- I own myself – my thoughts, actions, decisions, likes and dislikes.
- I generate my happiness. Those around me add to it.
- Reciprocate good to family and friends and colleagues as much as possible. If you are unable to reciprocate, pass it on. I add to others’ happiness.
- When choosing battles, focus on long-term good.
- Do not wrestle anyone covered in shit. You will never come out looking or smelling good. By the same token, do not throw a stone into a pile of shit.
- It is okay to walk away from a battle, as long as I know why I am walking away.
- Know what your values are, and pursue what matters to you.
- You cannot ‘produce’ without having your ‘production capacity’ intact. Monitor capacity constantly and keep topping off. (Stephen Covey)
- Friend of an enemy is not a friend. Enemy of a friend is not an enemy either. A true friend won’t expect you to be an enemy’s enemy or a friend’s friend.
- Know your love language(s). It also helps to know the love language(s) of those who are close to you. (Gary Chapman)
- Remember the waiting rule. Five minutes for love, ten for respect, fifteen for stupidity.
- Happiness and peace are not default settings in your brain. It takes some work to get there and stay there. You will do the work. Not others.
- Unless it’s not important or entirely prohibitive, working through a problem is better than working around a problem.
- Retain your ability to strip down every major decision (e.g., owning a house, getting married, career choice) down to the bare basics. You may need to revisit and revise them in the future.
- Going together is always better than going alone. When it’s absolutely necessary, it’s okay to go alone. (Rabindranath Tagore)
- Do not make a sacrifice you will not stand by. You are always free to roll back and make course corrections as needed.
- Stay financially independent and solvent at all times.
- Do not criticize someone else’s name, appearance, food, clothes, language, religion, place of origin, or anything else that’s integral to their identity.
- Remember SPECS for health. SPECS is an acronym my friend Meera and I came up with, for the components of health Alan Wolfelt wrote about. Spiritual, Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, and Social health! You own your health.
Thank you for letting me share my own happiness project with you!