Monday, March 28, 2022

Success and Happiness - IV

Dopamine, one may say, is the reward chemical. Endorphins may give you pleasure but, by and large, the pleasure that they give is meant to suppress pain. Dopamine gives you pleasure as a reward for achieving something.

To be sure, you get a dopamine kick out of food. But, then, you should remember that the body's mechanisms were developed at a time when starvation was the norm. So feeding the body IS an achievement for which it duly rewards you. Even if, for you, it is not much of an achievement. (Much like it pushes you to overeat so that it can save fats for a future when you may starve again...even if you are never likely to starve.)

Dopamine hits happen when you do what the BODY likes you to do, it listening to great music, eating well, whatever. But it also floods you when YOU achieve YOUR goals. Thus Dopamine is the happiness chemical directly related to success.

Understand, that YOU will have to feel it is a success in this case. As in, the chap who feels that passing an exam is an achievement will get a dopamine kick when he does; the chap who comes in second may feel depressed cos he set 'coming first' as his goal; and the chap who did come first may feel indifferent cos he did not consider that exam itself as important enough to set any goals around it.

THIS, then, is why you need to set bite-sized goals; goals around what you do currently and not only on where you want to reach in the far future; goals around what you DO (learn something new; increase efficiency of performance, whatever) That's how you get the joy of achieving and form the habit of doing the right things.

Career goals come with the stress of non-performance. As in, if there is a positive high of achieving, there is also the anxiety of not achieving. It helps to have multiple activities, for each of which you have goals, so that you get your dopamine highs one way or the other. Goals relating to your daily exercise levels, goals relating to learning a new hobby...and even successes like solving the day's Sudoku or Wordle. Unless you start feeling shamed if you fail to solve a day's Wordle, these are stress-free ways of getting dopamine highs.

The body does not know that solving a Sudoku is not as important as writing code. (I do not either but you don't care about me!) All it knows is how involved YOU are in the activity, so get a dopamine shot for free with your Wordle. Listen to music that moves you, do things that you do it chopping vegetables or carpentry or painting.

Focus on ONE thing as your yardstick for success, to the exclusion of everything else, and you are likely to be the club bore who has no conversation; as well as an unhappy person except on the days when you see some 'success'. Focus on one thing primarily, yes, but leave enough time in the day for rounding off your life with other activities. AND ensure that you have some measures of 'success' in ALL of them!

Work-Life balance is NOT only between career and family. It needs to be on ALL facets of life!

Monday, March 21, 2022

Success and Happiness - III

Health is such a strange thing. When you are not in good health, you are sure that all you need to be happy is to be restored to normal. When you are normal, though, it seems irrelevant to your happiness.

Low levels of serotonin and the consequent depression is like that. When you are depressed, to not be depressed is sufficient happiness. When your mood stabilizes, though, it's just business as usual, no great cause for joy.

Endorphins, or the pleasure chemical, would seem different at first sight. The name itself - derived as it is from 'endogenous morphine' or, in other words, morphine-like chemicals naturally produced by the body - seems to indicate that it would give you joyous highs. Though, in fact, the morphine-like behavior of endorphins is as a pain-killer which is how morphine was seen originally. But, yes, endorphins give you a high much like morphine does.

Unfortunately, like with Serotonin, there are people whose bodies produce lesser endorphins than others causing them to be less likely to be happy than others. As with Serotonin, other than medication to boost endorphins, they CAN do things which IMPROVE their happiness.

Endorphins seem primarily kicked off by pain. Naturally, since they seem to be Nature's painkillers. So, exercise is one of the ways to get an endorphin rush. Fast walking, running, jogging, squats, yoga, yada yada, yes, but for more than 30 minutes which is when the body feels stretched enough to feel the need to release endorphins.

Burn your mouth with spicy foods, or endure the bitterness of dark chocolate and you get an endorphin rush. If you are lucky enough to actually LIKE them, does not matter. The body still thinks you ought to be in pain and produces endorphins. (Ahem! Apparently, they have flavonols or some such which help endorphin production. Chemistry again rears its ugly head, as it does quite often with Nityananda!) Wine helps, too, apparently, but you really do not need to get falling down drunk for endorphins to kick in.

Apparently, watching drama - if you like them that is - also helps endorphin release. I do not know whether it is because watching other people in pain sets off a sympathetic response or because watching them is SO painful that the body releases its painkillers. This, perhaps, explains the addictive nature of those painful 'mega-serials'.

Strangely enough, there are some not so painful options to get an endorphin rush. Like meditation - though I suppose, for most people, sitting still and not being judgmental, even of their own thoughts, IS probably the most painful thing to do. Acupuncture, Acupressure and massage could also be seen as having their own component of pain, explaining why they set off endorphin release.

But...laughter? And NOT laughter AT you but YOU laughing. THAT sets off endorphin release too, so perhaps it is time to dust off those comedies and, even, Tom and Jerry! A long, hot bath, smells of lavender...

What role does success have in all this? Unless, of course, you are intending to become a topnotch athlete or a wine-taster or some such?

Time! If you let a pursuit of your goals to fill up all your available time so that you have no time for exercise or meditation or long hot baths; if your mind cannot set aside that pursuit and sink into that comedy or, even, that mega-serial; if you are in the 'gulp down a power-lunch and on to the next PPT' mode always...

If you have no time to smell the roses...

You will spend a lifetime chasing success by depriving yourself of your daily dose of small pleasures.

A happy life is not a destination where you arrive at with great and concerted effort. It is an accumulation of happy moments across your whole life. A pursuit of happiness is a pursuit to maximize those happy moments in your life.

What would be the meaning of a success which reduces the sum total of possible happy moments?

Monday, March 14, 2022

Success and Happiness - II

I try to find a bit more about happiness and, presto, Chemistry rears its ugly head. As usual. I mean, I escape a BSc in Chemistry only to land in Chemical Engineering so I should sort of have expected it, I suppose. Especially since escaping into an MBA in Finance only landed me in a fertilizer company and back to dealing in calculations relating to chemical reactions all over again!

So, apparently, there are these hormones which are related to happiness. Whether they are only the body's messengers of happiness or whether they are the cause for why you feel happy, I am sort of unsure. But, yeah, these chemicals - serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin - are apparently what give you the highs of joy.

Though, really speaking, this serotonin appears to be more a anti-unhappiness hormone. Way back in my MBA days, there was this motivational theory that said that there were Health Factors and Motivational factors in any work environment. Health factors were those which demotivated by their absence but their presence would not motivate. I mean, like, if you are a tech whiz in Chennai and if your office does not have a functioning A/c, you'd quite likely quit asap. But does a job advertisement saying "Fully air-conditioned office" make you want to queue up for a job? This serotonin is somewhat like that to happiness. If its level in your body is low, you feel depressed and unhappy; the presence does not make you actively happy. (Yeah, like shade in a hot sun, IF you have just been depressed and get to the point of not being depressed, it could feel like a joy at that time.)

Yes, from what I understand, treatment for depression IS treatment to up the serotonin levels. AND depression due to naturally low serotonin levels IS a PHYSICAL condition and HAS to be treated by medication. You don't just tell the chap that it is 'all in the mind', so buck up and think positive AND expect that person to be a ray of sunshine from then on.

Now, it is one thing to say that a person like me, who starts off with the uncanny ability to derive  different answers every time he adds two and two, is not going to become a Ramanujam in mathematics. But it is quite another to say that I will never narrow down my answers to the one right figure no matter how long I try. In other words, the fact that I am prone to depression does not mean that I can in no way REDUCE the frequency, duration or extent to which I get depressed. NOR does the fact that I am not naturally prone to depression mean that I cannot mess up my life enough to GET to the point of being permanently depressed.

Google will tell you that exposure to sunlight, some foods, exercise yada yada will help you push up your serotonin levels. (Apparently tryptophan-rich foods, in tandem with carbs, improves serotonin levels. At last! I KNOW why we TamBrams are so fond of curd rice - dairy products being a source of tryptophan!) AND, yes, reducing stress and anxiety in your life is a great help to avert low serotonin levels.

The quest for success, then, IS a possible source of anxiety and stress. For one, operating well outside your comfort levels is always stressful. Understand that growth happens when you venture outside your comfort levels...but THAT should be in a manner which eventually EXTENDS the ambit of your comfort zone. For a classical singer to sing playback in the movies is one thing; for a tone-deaf person to try to become a concert singer is another! Doing things that you are good at doing, and like doing, does not leave you feeling anxious and stressed.

To the extent that the goals that you set for yourself are within your control - as in things that YOU yourself do and where the achievement is measurable by yourself - the stress levels are lesser. You can assess how well you have written a code to do a certain task; comes to giving a speech, it is the reaction of the audience that determines how well you have done it and, so, success depends not on you but on others.

Setting far-out goals without setting intermediate markers to measure progress is an easy way to depression. It is all very well to set yourself a target of becoming a CEO by 45. But how do you know you are satisfactorily on your way at 30, if you have set no intermediate target? THAT way lies anxiety, that way lies depression.

If the quest for success is not to also become the path to unhappiness, it is important to set your goals in an area where you expect to be in your comfort zone sooner of later; where you have multiple goals - one set of personal improvement which gives you controllable achievements and one set of external goals; and to have your goals bite-sized so that you can have a sense of achievement along the way and not merely at the destination.

Or, of course, you can tell Life, "I am just along for the ride!" If you could do that, though, you'd have abandoned this post as soon as you saw the title!

Monday, March 7, 2022

Success and happiness

Through my younger days, I was essentially taught that success MEANT happiness. Yeah, success then was all about getting enough education credentials to get into Engineering or medicine - the only two certain means of being employed. There really was no difference between the success and happiness when put that way. I mean, when success means avoiding potential starvation, you hardly see it as different from happiness. True, there were stories about people starving in order to pursue their art or their love or whatever but they did not really seem to be singing and dancing with happiness because they were starving.

The problem is that, once you are confident that the wolf is not parked outside the door (In other words, when starvation is not a perpetual threat), the fact that you are eating does not make you actively happy. I mean, yeah, it is nice that you CAN eat, unless of course obesity is causing you to go on a diet, but you see no reason to be singing and dancing around the house because you are NOT starving either.

Such, indeed, is the problem with happiness. When you don't have it, you are unhappy about it. When you first get it, you are happy. THEN you start getting unhappy about the other things you do not have.

Success is achieving the goals that you tried to achieve. Happiness is a state of mind. Now, WHEN you achieve a goal, you feel happy about the achievement, alright. THAT state of mind does not last forever though. The mind is a funny beast, it never remains content in one state of mind. It keeps oscillating up and down all the time. So, if success is what you choose as the WAY to happiness, then you should keep setting goals and keep achieving them. An iffy proposition - somewhat like winning at a slot machine and having to KEEP winning in order to maintain that high!

Of course, the mind oscillates about a mean. Like, the man who is starving - he could get a meal every other day and feel happy but the overall average happiness he feels is bound to be lower than the man who is sure of his food. So, yes, some successes CAN push up the average happiness levels. The trick is to know whether the goals YOU set ARE the sort of goals which are pushing up your mean happiness levels OR merely spikes around the same old level.

Philosophy, of course, tells you to control the mind. Indian philosophy is all about keeping the mind 'free from the pairs of opposites' - pleasure-pain, like-dislike, comfort-discomfort, yada yada. AND, for those of you know find Indian anything not worth attention unless duly ratified by the West, dear old Rudyard Kipling also says, "...if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same...". So there! THAT way, the mind ceases oscillating and 'state of mind' is not a fickle thing any longer.

But, you see, sorrow and joy are also one of those pairs of opposites. THAT stable state of could call it peace but can you call it happiness? The religious philosophers call it Bliss OR Nirvana OR some such.

In the here-and-now of ordinary folks like you and me, for whom these pairs of opposites ARE the guiding lights of life...what sort of success will lead to lasting happiness?

And can you call it success if it leaves you feeling unhappy?