Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.
A long time ago, I wrote a column called The Good Life. I think about this concept a lot, usually around now when a year ends and a new dawn begins. What is a good life?
The term originated in ancient Europe. German philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche, for example, said that the good life was one which you lived authentically and powerfully. Immanuel Kant, also from Germany, said that the good life was one that combined virtue and purpose. Greek philosophers– Socrates, Plato and Aristotle– had their own versions. They talked about eudaimonia, the flowering of all aspects of the self– which included wisdom, courage, strength, justice and meaning.
My definition of the good life is typically Indian. It involves a contradiction. To me, the good life is about a life of the senses and a life of the spirit: what we call in Sanskrit as bhoga and yoga. I would argue that each of us has a version of this. My version of bhoga involves food, family, friends; beauty through art, dance and song; sensuousness through textiles, scents, and spirits– not of the mystical kind but one involving a wineglass. The problem is that a life of the senses is an outward ripple, seeking more and more. While a life of the soul is inward, seeking less and less. Which do you choose? This enterprise is like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake. Seeking more externally, or going inward. A contradiction.
For a long time, this contradiction bothered me. Covid changed that. Covid forced introspection. For example, we all think we are rational human beings. But our conscious mind is like a tiny boat that we think we are rowing. While our unconscious is like a giant iceberg underneath. Solitude and introspection tell us that we need to come to terms with the contradictions that we hold.
Take something that is itself a contradiction – it is both a small and big part of our lives, social media. We know, each of us, that what we put out on Instagram or Facebook is sometimes the opposite of what is going on in our lives. The happy posts do not reflect the chaos and sadness in our lives. It is like the gandabherunda: the two-headed bird that is the royal symbol of the Mysore Wodeyars. It symbolises opposites and contradictions. And yet, we cannot free ourselves from social media. We love it and hate it.
Happiness research today has three streams. One involves the intersection of science and spirituality. Neuroscientists are doing all sorts of brain imaging. They are running CAT scans and MRIs on Tibetan monks who meditate for years and years. They found that in such long-term meditators, two areas of the brain are different from yours and mine. The areas linked to fear and the need to control. Instead, these Buddhist monks felt a diffused soft oneness with their surroundings. When you think about it, a lot of our stress comes from our need for control. Even though we now know very well that we cannot control many parts of our lives. So what’s the takeaway? This too, is a contradiction. We are afraid of letting go of control. But maybe doing that will remove fear. Remember the monks: no desire to control, no fear.
Professor Laurie Santos of Yale University teaches a class called The Art of Happiness. She teaches many things and the course is available for free online. But one of the things she says is that we humans have a profound need for connection. Let’s say that you are standing in a line or waiting. The instinct these days is to check our phones. But Laurie Santos discovered that those people who actually struck up a conversation, who engaged with others were happier than those who didn’t. So the next time you are hanging around other people, try talking to them. Try cultivating this habit. You may be surprised.
The last thing I want to say comes from the longest happiness study that has ever been done. The Grant study done on 724 Harvard students throughout their lives said that happiness was about relationships. But it also said that people with higher emotional intelligence, EQ, tend to be happier. EQ is measured by a few qualities. Altruism– not thinking only about yourself. Anticipation– being attuned to other’s needs. A sense of humour. But the last two are interesting. The last two are structure and scaffolding, both needed for a strong building. Structure has to do with discipline. Scaffolding is more nuanced. It has to do with reprogramming, reformatting, and re-imagining. When life hurts us, we can do two things– hold the hurt inside, and suppress it. Or convert the pain and hurt into something creative. This is where the arts, music, dance and theatre come to the rescue. This is why it is healthy to engage with them because they offer scaffolding and increase our well-being.
So I have finally put my contradictions to rest. Every ancient culture celebrates nuance. We have the ardha-nari: half man half woman. We have the sphinx: half man, half beast. We are full of contradictions and we need to embrace them. So, dear readers, I hope that all of us have a good life, both in the bhoga and the yoga sense. I hope that we gain the wisdom to do the dance between the senses and the spirit. That we nurture the relationships that will nourish us. I hope that we have the courage to let go of control.
Go without fear. Go without stress. Surrender. Happy New Year!