The “no kids” decision

5 09 2016

It never occurred to me that parenting could be a choice (like many other conventions of course). When I first heard about it from an acquaintance , the idea of choosing not be a parent was truly shocking to me, to say the least. I couldn’t comprehend the reasons behind the sentiment. But that was 8 years ago. My perception, view, and understanding of world and people has widened to a non-trivial extent since then. 😛 And now besides being curious about the phenomenon, I can totally understand the decision.

I, like most, have been led to believe that raising offspring is the most meaningful aspect of one’s life. What about happiness? Of course, having and raising kids is the source of unsurpassed happiness. Isn’t it? But academic research had not been so conclusive about it. In fact, several research studies suggest that young parents are far unhappier compared to non-parents. The happiness benefits rather seem to roll in much later for the parents – when the kids are grown up. Hmm! Such a dismal outcome! 😦

That parenting is an ordeal is undeniable. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. And the expectations of “modern parenting” only add to the anxiety. According to Jennifer Senior, the concept of parenting and childhood as exists today is only about 70 years old. In the past, kids used to work and were treated as economic assets. Now, kids are economically worthless but emotionally priceless, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer puts it . Jennifer, the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says that the happiness of our kids is an unfair burden both for parents and kids. We should instead focus on creating circumstances in which they become productive and confident. Happiness can only be a by-product (Listen). Despite the parenting crisis, parents usually vouch for the contentment it brings along the way. Nevertheless, when someone decides not to have kids due to the above or any other reason, they need and should not be judged.

I would think this particular phenomenon has been on an increasing trend in recent times. But maybe not universally. It is mostly seen in advanced/developed societies. This observation brings up many interesting questions.  Where is it most prevalent? It is in individualistic  societies or collectivist societies? What other cultural and social factors are correlated to this trend? (Adding to my to-read list: Japan: The Childless Society?: The Crisis of Motherhood.) Is it because people have become selfish, shallow and self-absorbed?

SelfishMeghan Daum tried to probe the question through “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed” a collection of essays from 16 writers who “chose” not to have kids (a few decades ago). I don’t know what I hoped for, but the reasons they cited for their decision are not very dramatic. The simplest and most straight-forward reason is that they never liked kids, never felt any emotional attachment to any kids, and hence did not envision themselves raising any. Other reasons included: not ready or up to take on the huge responsibility; didn’t think they could do a good job; to focus on career passion etc. Whatever the reason, the decision was not always an easy one,  given the social expectations and personal dilemma. But this may be changing recently and the practice is gaining wider acceptance. A 2012 statistic states that 22 percent of women in 40-44 age bracket are childless by choice. (Source).

To choose to be childless, especially for a woman, is largely perceived as very unnatural. This is due to the pervasive notion that women are mothers first and people second. But as Laura Kipnis explores in her piece in the above book, the mother-child bond is highly overrated and has evolved only more recently. She questions and explores the so called “maternal instincts”.

Another interesting observation made in the book was the possible implications of this decision. If a significant proportion of a particular segment of people, say for example, highly educated white people, decide not to have kids, will it not result in an imbalance in the genetic mix of the next generation? Well, maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s part of the grand scheme called the “human evolution”! 🙂 Also, of course there could be economic implications – lesser workforce, greater social security costs, school enrollments, vaccine demand etc. (See here).





Dreams limited

16 07 2015

The adage “Always aim for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” makes perfect sense to me now. But there was a time when it was as incomprehensible to me as Greek and Latin. 😛 All my childhood and early youth I struggled to fathom the deeper meaning of it without avail. Its import and impact was completely lost on me. I genuinely failed to understand how aiming high or dreaming big is possible. I now reflect on that perception of mine with more than a little sadness. Lacking the self-esteem to even wish big things for oneself is perhaps one of the most devastating disabilities one can have.

As the great scientist and thought leader Abdul Kalam has aptly said,

“Dream, Dream Dream

Dreams transform into thoughts

And thoughts result in action.”

Dreams make things possible. Without a dream, there is no vision, no concrete ambition or goal worthy enough and life may seem so meaningless. I believe that everyone has the “potential” within oneself to be anything he or she wants to be. The key is to realize/know/dream what one wants to be, and with passion. And only then the focused effort will take you places. To quote Kalam again, “You have to dream before your dreams can come true”. 🙂 I’m now inclined to believe that being unable to dream limits one’s progress and chances of success, despite one’s abilities.

When I really think about it, even my parents had no big dreams for my brother or myself. They had modest wishes for their children, as if wishing for more is somehow inappropriate. I think the general sentiment is to be blend with the herd.  It’s enough if we can achieve “this”, only because that’s what everyone around deems as ‘acceptable’ and ‘success’. Nothing more, because there is no need for it.  Sure, you need to be ahead of the race, for survival sake. But you have no choice in which race you can participate in. Most likely, the race is already chosen for you.

I don’t mean to generalize, but the general lack of self-esteem, in the name of practicing humility and displaying modesty, is not an uncommon phenomenon among the Indian middle-class.  Naturally, it follows that “dreaming big” doesn’t dwell too well with them. It usually is an exception, rather than the norm. I attribute this narrow view of life to the characteristic middle-class mentality, in which the prevailing attitude is ‘life is a struggle’ and the whole purpose of life is to chug through the maze of life, just surviving. Surviving life, with all its struggles and myriad problems, is the whole point.  Managing problems is the way of life, not trying to mitigate or raise over them. My intention is not to undermine the significance of “survival”, which of course is important,  but rather to point out the overbearing nature of this attitude, which often overshadows people’s ability to dream and thereby make it big.

On a side note, I think the Indian middle-class has a similar narrow perspective about happiness too. It may seem absurd to think that there might exist something called “too much happiness”, but I guess “a completely happy person” makes people around uncomfortable and even perceived as abnormal. :P. Expressing joy too much is almost frowned upon. In this humorous and satirical post,  the blogger wonders why elders police laughter and bemoans the “partiality against laughter”.   😛

On the other hand, I’m a little skeptical about America’s cornerstone belief in the limitlessness of what an individual can achieve or be, too. It puts humongous amount of stress on people to achieve and succeed, leading to detrimental effects like depression, addiction to speed etc. Like everything in life, finding the right balance is the key. Aim to reach for the stars, but have your feet firmly on the ground.





A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment

7 07 2015

Having taken a couple of MOOCs recently on the subject of “happiness”, and having read a lot of material on the topic, my first thought when I came across yet another happiness course, this time offered by an Indian institute, was – I already know about all the cutting-edge research and material on the subject, and listened to the great pioneers in the field; what’s more to know? what new can this course offer?

I know! I sound like a true fool. Because the adage goes – “A wise man never knows all, only fools know everything.” 😛

This changed a little, when I was taken in by the intro video, which basically promoted the course as something that offers the knowledge and wisdom in the form of immensely helpful and practical nuggets like the “seven habits of the highly happy”, the “seven deadly sins of happiness” etc. The course is offered by a business school. What else can we expect. 😛 My curiosity piqued and I decided to give it a try.

I quickly realized my earlier folly and was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of new and engaging material (even though I’m familiar with many of the main ideas from my earlier courses). The presentation too is new and more engaging.  And I soon found myself impressed and looking forward to more from the course.

It wasn’t far along into the course that I started to feel like this is the ultimate practical guide you can get on happiness. What a quick transformation! 😉

Devaluing happiness is the first deadly sin of happiness. At the risk of being dramatic, I admit that it is at this point that I let my defenses down and let myself completely carried away by the bounty of knowledge in front of me. Because I readily realized that we actually don’t give happiness the priority it deserves, in many situations.

Another mind-blowing useful piece of nugget I got from the first week of the course, is about the medium maximization. It’s a common phenomenon that we confuse means with goal and pursue the medium and lose sight of the goal. The most common medium is money. Other similar ones include status, fame etc.

But in some cases, it’s not easy to distinguish between the medium and the goal. For example, I like to travel. But is it a medium or a goal? What am I really after? Do I think that I achieve happiness by travelling? If so, am I doing it wrong by pursuing travel? Same with “reading”. What is my goal in reading? Is it the means or the goal?

If they are mediums, what if I can be happy even without doing those things? Why do I think that only doing those things will bring happiness to me? Questions, questions!!!

But, really, all mediums can’t be the same in their effect. Can they? It makes sense to think that materialistic pursuits are always meaningless and lead to unsustainable pleasure, unlike the experiential pursuits. Tom Gilovich and others have proved through research that people are happier when they gain experiences rather than material things. But this implies that even experiences are means to the ultimate goal – happiness. Albeit a more reliable and sustainable means, but means nonetheless.

But what if I get carried away by these experiences – that is  what if I pursue them with as much vigor as some people pursue money or status, do they lose their significance and become as empty and meaningless as material pursuits?

The first exercise itself, which involves coming up with my own definition of happiness and identifying the things/activities that make me happy’ had been so rewarding. I realized that I have never consciously thought about what makes me happy or what I actually consider as happiness. I hope to work on my perception of happiness, refine it, and procure a more sustainable form of understanding about the concept.

I was awestruck by the second deadly sin too – Chasing superiority. It hit the nail right on the head. The instructor not only offers the reasons why we chase superiority in the first place, but also addresses the common perception that it’s necessary for being successful and motivated, by letting us know that it’s only a misconception and unravels the hidden folds of this seemingly simple attitude. He also offers antidotes to all the sins in the form of practices and habits that mitigates the sins and  reinforce happiness.

The second week exercise is about Gratitude. writing a gratitude letter to someone you are grateful to and reading it to them. I kind of cheated on this exercise in my previous course :P. Expressing gratitude to someone whom you have taken for granted all your life isn’t easy. Even though I consciously feel it many times, the idea of putting the sentiment into actual words and delivering them in person makes me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I would like to give it a honest try, this time. (This instructor says, “email” is fine too. 😛 )

I found the way how the instructor not only provides just enough science and research behind each concept, but also how he actually addresses the prevalent misconceptions about various deadly sins we indulge in on a regular basis, throws light on how they are damaging our happiness and offers practical tips about how to get rid of them, completely useful.

This is the biggest advantage of this course. I’m delighted to take this course and hope to get as much as possible out if it, given my hectic schedule these days. The fact that it’s converted to On-Demand format is really helpful.
I’m also pleasantly surprised by the depth of the content. There are lot of references to books and research articles. If only I can ever read them all.. 😛

For other happiness related posts, click here.





Speed

1 06 2015

Another book I picked up from the shelf captivated by the title and the book cover. Speed by Dr. Stephenie Brown is about rampant addiction to “speed” – trying to be fast and faster – and how to overcome it. The subject interests me a lot. I don’t consider or even recognize myself as a speed addict, but I must admit that being part of the culture which highly regards speed, to its own doom in the long term, I’m aware that I’m influenced by the popular notion and just on the verge of the deep pit that is the addiction to speed, which of course is not a good position to be in to start with.

SpeedI’m more intrigued by this topic because, I have recently started thinking about the toxic mental habits “perfectionism”, and “maximizing”, which are cutting big time into my happiness potential. I realized that speed and its addiction is closely related to it and will provide greater insight into everything that is under play about which it serves me well to be aware of.

The author starts with providing a checklist of twenty questions, the answers to which will determine whether one is addicted to speed or not. She moves on to describe what this addiction actually means, how it evolved, and more importantly what are the reasons underlying this increasingly common phenomenon.

I’m impressed by the honesty and the forthrightness with which she pointed out, right in the beginning of the book and touched upon frequently throughout the rest of the book, that the American culture rooted in the core beliefs of sense of entitlement and unlimited power is what led to the national addiction to speed. She emphasizes that the notions that there is nothing impossible, that the individual is in charge and control, that there is no limit to progress etc., result in a culture which makes slowing down and recognizing limits extremely difficult. With the prevalent cultural and societal norms, it’s even difficult to realize and recognize that one is addicted to speed, that it’s not a good thing.

She explains in detail, what characterizes a speed addict. How their thinking and behavior are. She mentions, more than once, that the impulsiveness inherent to the speed addiction (or any addiction for that matter), is a basic quality of a typical child and the overcoming it is an essential part of growing up. But addicts are stuck in that psyche as they involve in their compulsive actions.

Overcoming speed addiction involves a process akin to conquering any other addiction. She says that the principles of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) prove to be a strong foundation. AA’s basic tenets like accepting the loss of control, turning to others for support, taking one step at a time etc. go a long way in truly enabling one to overpower their speed addiction. She believes that for true and sustainable change to occur, it needs to be focused on behavior, emotions, and thinking making it a comprehensible approach. Unless, we break our previous detrimental behaviors and replace them with new constructive ones, unless we acknowledge and address our feelings before, during, and after speed, unless we replace of  old ways of thinking with new ones, we can’t envision a brighter, slower, and more rewarding life.

This book provides great detail not only about the nature and root causes of speed addiction, but also elaborate background on and instructions about how to embark on and succeed in the recovery process. As such, there is a wealth of information in this book for both who is interested in the topic and who seeks help in regards to their own speed addiction.

Despite the prolific interspersion of personal cases of several people (I’m guessing hypothetical, nevertheless must be based on real subjects), the narration seemed a drag. When you look at it critically, it has all the elements to be a good read. But somehow it didn’t live up to other more engaging non-fiction I’ve read before. There is a lot of repetition throughout the book. But I think it’s a strategy to drive home the main points.  Nonetheless, I believe that this book can be written in a more interesting way.

When I’ve read all those Malcolm Gladwell books and quite recently a book on Habits by  Charles Duhigg, both journalists of New York Times, I distinctly remember getting bored (towards the end of 4th or 5th book) with the unchanged style of presentation – with chapters divided into multiple parts, and several stories running in parallel throughout the book etc., and wondered whether there can’t be any other way of presenting/narrating the content. Even so, all those books were really engaging. I feel that this book failed in this aspect, despite the running parallel stories that enable the readers to identify with the characters.

I really had to exercise my perseverance in order to finally finish the book. But of course, one’s experience can seldom be objective. There are almost always several things going on in life at any point, which influence richness or otherwise of every other experience. 🙂  So, the bottom line is that don’t get disheartened by my negative remarks, but focus on the positive stuff and if you think this is something that interests you or will help you, go for it! This book truly provides a compelling case of the reality of speed addiction, and the need to surmount it.





Eternal bliss

7 05 2015

If I’m to nominate two people for eternal bliss, it would be Sir P G Wodehouse and A R Rahman. Actually, I truly believe that they deserve that and more.

Wodehouse, because of the pure, unadulterated humor he shares through his amazing books. A lot of times fun is confused with “making fun of people”, humor is mistaken with laughing at people pointing out oddities in their personalities or behaviors, hilarity as synonymous with taking pleasure in other people’s (or creatures’) little accidents. I don’t want to generalize here, but when I happened to watch a few of the videos from the “funniest videos” TV program, I was appalled because audience were laughing at people slipping and falling hard on their backs, pets shocked and alarmed, people hit by a sudden gush of water in their faces etc. In total contrast, whenever I read one of Sir Wodehouse’s comedies, I experience a joy and peace beyond description. My recent read of his is “The Politeness of Princes, and Other School Stories” (Gutenberg link).

AR Rahman, because of the soul stirring music he delivers on a consistent basis. His music transports me to a higher world. Every time I listen to one of his songs, I can’t help stopping and marveling.  🙂

Too bad I’m missing his concert next month. 😂

His recent tracks on my current playlist include:





Gifting

5 05 2015

Gifting is a rewarding experience. To pick and choose the best gifts for near and dear has always been my favorite activity. But over the years, I must admit that the frequency of gifting has dwindled unbeknownst to me . Of course there is some gifting done occasionally in a perfunctory way, devoid of any surprise element whatsoever. And of course there are some moments when I’m inspired to make a gesture. Even as I agree that the act of gifting is as much gratifying to me as I do hope to the receivers, I usually don’t pat my shoulder for the deed. I just feel glad for the opportunity to spread smiles and wonder why I don’t do this more often and to more people. But the magic is lost quickly and routine life takes over. Sigh!

Recently, I became part of this ‘Pay it Forward’ chain on Facebook, which basically needs you to surprise 5 of your friends with deeds of kindness aka gifts. Thus I got myself into this amazing opportunity for thinking noble thoughts. 😛

One thing that struck me in this whole experience is how difficult it is to pick the right gift. Especially if you want it to be something the receiver can cherish or at least bring a warm lingering smile on his/her face. Sometimes it’s mildly frustrating too as I endlessly scour ideas and websites for something that feels just right. 😉 But in the end, it’s all worth it.

Happiness and smiles everywhere. Bliss! 🙂





Happiness made easy

25 04 2015

Everyone wants to be happy. There are a lot of theories and even philosophies that explain the “science of happiness”, but as a layperson, I just want to know exactly what I can do to achieve happiness. While there are no shortcuts, researchers have put together a number of practices, which, when incorporated in our lives, will actually make us happier.  Here they are for the benefit of the mankind 🙂 :

  1. Three Good Things – Every day at the end of the day, write down three good things that happened to you that day. This is the easiest. Before hitting the bed, my son and I tell each other the three good things that happened to us that day. Makes the ritual exciting ;).
  2. Active listening – take time to listen to someone, with total focus. Take an active interest in what the other person has to say. Show support and empathy. Practice it at least once a week.
  3. Random Acts of Kindness – Each day, do an act of kindness to one or more people. The key is to be kind in different ways and to spread them across the days. Doing 10 kind things a day and nothing for the next few days, doesn’t work. Also, it is important to do different acts of kindness, rather than doing the same thing to the same person or different people. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t find this practice as effortless as I thought it would be. For one thing, maybe I have a higher threshold for kindness. And also, it is sometimes embarrassing to feel good about myself by just being or doing something nice.
  4. Forgive – This is perhaps the hardest one. Make a list of people and actions that warrant the effort to forgive. Take each one, think about it and reflect on how it impacted you – psychologically and/or physically. When you are ready, “decide to forgive”. Here, it is important to understand what forgiveness really means. It does not mean forgetting or condoning the actions or even reconciling. It just means that you are letting go of your resentment. Extending the hand of mercy actually helps “you” more than the recipient. The other person doesn’t even have to know that you have forgiven him/her.
  5. Meditation – Mindful breathing, Body scan meditation. Being mindful helps you calm down and brings serenity when practiced regularly. Of course, there are lot of other benefits associated with meditation. Its positive impact on our lives cannot be overstated. The crux of mindful meditation is not about not having any thoughts but rather being aware of them when they occur and bringing the wandering mind back to the breath. This awareness itself helps us in being more mindful. Research states that a wandering mind is the cause of happiness, not the consequence. A focused or mindful mind is happier.
  6. Self-compassionate Letter – identity something about yourself that makes you feel sad or ashamed  or insecure etc. Then write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance of the part of yourself that you dislike. When you feel really down, or berate yourself for something, or generally feel bad about yourself, imagine what you would say to a best friend who feels the same. Extend the same compassion towards yourself.
  7. Best Possible Self – Imagine the best possible life you can imagine in the next five years and write down about it. Consider all relevant areas of your life – career, relationships etc. Be very specific. I found that having multiple best possible selves is really helpful because it broadens our thinking and enables us to learn more about ourselves. It helps us to be more optimistic – even if plan A fails, we have other plans ready. 😛
  8. Gratitude Journal – Write about the things or experiences for which you are grateful. Do it thrice a week to be effective. Don’t overdo it. 😛
  9. Gratitude Letter –  Write a honest and candid letter to someone to whom you are grateful for. Better if it is someone/something that you haven’t thought about lately or that is not often on your mind. Deliver the letter in person and read it to him/her.
  10. Writing About Awe – Write about a time when you felt “awe”. It might be about nature, work of art, human kindness, or spiritual experience.

Part 12 of Science of Happiness Series (Final).

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10    Part 11