Framework for the good life (auxiliary)

If broadly categorised, things coming under the purview of auxiliary can be distinguished as follows:

  1. Well-being
  2. Relationships
  3. Leisure

Auxiliary often gets a residual treatment where people think about it only if there is time left after addressing the core and sleep needs. It is the first to slip down the priority list.

This is not a wise thing to do as it has direct implications on one’s well-being and consequently happiness. There needs to be a balance between the different components of life. It is counterintuitive to the ideas that we have grown with that suggest giving up on everything and focusing extensively on our cores to find success. But something is fundamentally wrong with it. While there may be periods in our life when this single-minded focus on our cores is required and I am not suggesting that one shouldn’t do it but what we need to realise is that it is not sustainable. It has negative consequences that show signs over the long term.

A great philosophical book that addresses this issue is How will you measure your life? by Clayton Christensen (there’s an HBR article which summarises the learnings of the book). He graduated from Harvard Business School in 1979 and here is his observation:

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

While he is talking about relationships primarily, the same can be extrapolated to health as well where long working hours and an unbalanced lifestyle can have severe implications. How should this be approached then?

From the experiences that I have had, I have come to recognise patterns that enable the good life. Here’s what I have learned.

Well-being

Physical health

There is a lot of good advice out there on being physically healthy that include practices right from intermittent fasting to calisthenics. Most of them are science-backed and have cults built around them. But if one is being realistic, this idea of fitness that involves building a chiseled body and eating a keto diet is something that only the people at the tail end of any distribution can internalise and carry out for sustained periods of time to actually see the benefits accrue. For the large majority, this is daunting and in some cases unfathomable.

The problem with us is that we value visual cues more than substance. As we watch our favourite celebrities endorsing things like spending your life in the gym and eating salads all day long, a distorted idea of fitness starts developing which is so idealistic that most of us give up before even starting.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you can take it to the next level then great (as mentioned earlier, you can find amazing resources in your guided journey to better health) but if you can’t, stick to the basics and do them well every day. This involves:

It is simple yet complicated. We even struggle to keep this up because of our callous attitude towards our bodies. Just as good things compound, bad things do too. If there isn’t a direct negative implication of a poor lifestyle on your health presently, it will eventually catch-up. The sooner one realises and corrects this, the better it is.

Mental health

A commonly neglected aspect of well-being, mental health is critical to our happiness. The best way to care for it that I have found is a meditation technique inspired by Naval. I have been using it to extremely good effect for some time now. Here is a summary of the practice:

Prepare for meditation by sitting quietly in the morning, with eyes closed and back upright, in any comfortable position that will minimize movement. Sixty minutes are easier than thirty, as it takes time for the mind to settle down. Sixty consecutive days are needed, just as it takes time for the body to go from unfit to fit.

Make no effort for or against anything. Whatever happens, happens. Surrender to yourself in the moment. Resist nothing and reject nothing, including the urge to resist and reject. Meditation is not going through thoughts but rather letting thoughts go through you. The thought “I am meditating” is also a thought.

No focus, no mantra, no dharma, no chakras, no Buddhas, no gurus, no gratitude, no scripture, no temple, no music, no gadgets, no apps are required. Some may be helpful, but eventually all will have to be left behind. Start simply, because that’s where this all ends. There are many meditation methods, but “no effort” is the universal method.

~Naval on Twitter

The reason it is so helpful in achieving peacefulness and mental calmness is that it addresses a core issue that our busy lifestyles have given birth to—lack of time for thinking about what is happening, why it is happening and how we are reacting. When we take the time to process everything, the cloud of emotion gives way to objective clarity and allows us to see what is it that is troubling us and why so. We have all the answers. We just need to patiently look for them.

Relationships

Complexity, luck & contextual relationships

Perhaps the most complicated part of human existence are our relationships. Given what traits we inherit, how our environment shapes us and how self-aware we are, our reactions to situations are extremely varied and that makes predicting human behaviour very difficult.

We are all on our own journeys surrounded by different kinds of people. What works for me might or might not work for you. This understanding has led me to the idea that whatever you have with anyone, it should always be about and between the two people. When no two people are the same, how can the relationships be the same? Always be grateful for what you have and don’t compare.

Luck and serendipity play an important role in the kind of people we meet and befriend. You being born into your family was pure luck. Attending a particular school and becoming friends with the first person you met there was luck too. Or maybe your best friend is someone you met on a random trip or through a cousin at a wedding. Acknowledge that most of what forms a good life for you is nothing but pure luck. It should give you the perspective to appreciate your relationships.

Most relationships are contextual and all of us who are old enough understand that by now. Wherever you are (school/college/city/workplace), you’ll have a bunch of people around you who’ll be really close friends. But as you move out of that context, you’ll eventually lose touch with most of them. That’s the way life is.

The ones who stick around despite the change of context are people you should truly value. It takes effort and agency from both ends for people to stay connected when the commonality of context is no longer there. It is better to have a few compounding relationships than many shallow ones.

The relationship with yourself

Your relationship with others is a reflection of your relationship with yourself. If there exists a feeling of incompleteness within you and you seek to fulfill that through your relationships then you’ll just push people away and remain miserable.

For you to attract positive, driven and nice people to you, you should strive to enhance yourself on all levels. That means improving physically, mentally and emotionally. When your happiness is self-derived, when you are comfortable in your own skin and when you achieve that sense of completeness, your relationships automatically start improving.

Empathy & listening

Two traits that are agnostic to the kind of relationship but will help anyway are empathy and the ability to listen.

Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s position and thinking through the situation from their point of view without any bias. When you do that consistently, you’re able to understand the other person better. Everyone doesn’t think and behave alike so this practice helps in measuring one’s response and suiting it to the other person’s requirement. What it also does is that it helps you understand your role in their lives. You might be doing a hundred things for them but if you’re not doing the one thing that they most need you to do then you’re letting them down in their view. Many people don’t understand this and that is why most relationships fail. (Suggested reading for understanding empathy deeply – Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman)

The ability to listen builds on empathy. Most of the time what we need is someone to just listen to us.

Listening is an art. It is a skill that we are not very good at. It is about making the other person feel heard and understood through one’s silence, embrace and sometimes words. It is about letting them know that you are there for them no matter what. Great relationships are not built on grand gestures, they are built on the small pillars of trust and the feeling of being valued. (Suggested listening for understanding the art of listening – Dr. Sue Johnson: Cracking the Code of Love, The Knowledge Project by Shane Parrish)

Leisure

How you spend your spare time has a strong bearing on your happiness. Leisure should be spent on something progressive that energises you, helps you grow and makes you happy. There is nothing wrong with simply chilling on some days where you intentionally don’t do anything. But what I have noticed is that if this way of spending the free time crosses a particular threshold quite often, the mere act of not doing anything leads to a depressive spiral where we end up feeling bad.

Purpose lends meaning and conviction to our life. Being engaged in fruitful activities is a necessity for happiness.

In terms of choosing what to engage in, I feel that one should pursue activities that fulfill either or both of the following characteristics:

  1. Things that don’t depend on the external world
  2. Things that help you grow

For me, the primary way I achieve this is by satiating my natural intellectual curiosity. This involves reading, watching or listening to interesting stuff, and writing. There is so much to learn and know that this is a never-ending pursuit and an immense source of happiness for me. It doesn’t depend on any external factor. All I need is my Kindle and my laptop and I am set.

I have lived alone for a long time now and never have I ever felt bored or lonely. I don’t need people for this and I don’t need any external validation. This is a journey for the self, where there is no goal and no competition—just me doing my thing at my own pace.

There are other such things that I plan to do such as learning to play the guitar, or a foreign language and build an app. Having such side projects makes me excited and keeps the fun alive. I learn new skills or gain specific knowledge that at times supplement my core.

By detaching my happiness from the external influences, I create a positive feedback loop for myself and become self-sufficient. There is nothing more liberating than finding this fit for yourself.

It is simply about showing up

I don’t claim to have figured everything out and I know that no one else has it either. But with time, as my understanding of life is evolving, the idea that is getting reinforced over and over again is that it is the act of showing up and doing the simple things day in day out that matters more than anything else. Be there for that workout, for the meditation session, for your friends and family and find the time to indulge in your hobbies—it will lead you to the path of achieving the good life.

Here is a quote from Jay Pritchett of Modern Family which beautifully summarises my sentiment:

The key to being a good dad...well, sometimes things work out just the way you want. Sometimes they don't. But you gotta hang in there. Because when all is said and done, 90% of being a dad is just showing up.

Just replace ‘The key to being a good dad…’ with ‘The key to leading a good life…’ and it will still hold perfectly fine.


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