Measuring Your Life

Life is indeed complicated. It is not easy to understand it or even figure it out. No one can have all the answers and if anybody claims to be someone with all the answers, always be wary of such people.

I spend a decent amount of time in figuring out ‘what life is really about’ or ‘how do we measure life’ or ‘what does success mean’. Most of the time I don’t get any answers and when I do, I don’t like them. So I consciously try to bury these questions. This is not just me; it’s a human tendency to kick off the things that are uncomfortable. But then I think about how important it is to understand life because otherwise I will be chasing all the wrong things.

My outlook towards things has been shaped a lot by the works of Professor Yuval Noah Harari. His one of the ideas has made me realise that the most important thing in life is to be able to distinguish between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘a fictional story’. When I look at the things that are ‘objective realities’ such as birds, trees, and mountains, I immediately realise how insignificant my life’s problems are which may have been a product of my own imagination (this idea is again inspired by Prof Harari’s book SAPIENS). For instance, I have been observing birds a lot lately both when I am in my room or when I go outside. There is so much that I have learned about those birds from my mere observations on a daily basis. I get such a level of satisfaction that no gadget or technology can ever compete. I feel I am looking at things that ‘do exist’ in this world. Even when I look at the beautiful sky I sense vastness and everything in life- all the accomplishments, all the possessions seem little (I won’t say worthless because that would be extreme). We do spend a lot of time in our own imagination and hence, suffer. As Seneca would say, “WE SUFFER MORE IN IMAGINATION THAN IN REALITY”. Our brains create parallel realities that are not objective. I can suffer and feel miserable by thinking that I am a total failure because I did not get the job I was hoping to get. However, in reality that may be questionable. How do we understand what ‘failure’ is? Can we see it? Can we touch it? We can solely feel it but we can’t always trust our feelings.

Drawing a fine line between reality and non-reality is not a child’s play. Even philosophers and scientists are having a hard time decoding what ‘reality’ is. So, I am not going to pretend that I have figured it out. I am no expert. But there’s one thing I can say with confidence: the whole search for what is real is worth it.

You must be wondering that the title of this blog is ‘Measuring Your Life’ and I haven’t talked about it as such. Well that’s how you measure life- for me real success in life is about segregating what we usually call ‘mere illusions’ because majority of the time in life we suffer because of our distorted perceptions towards things. There are real stresses in life such as illness, death, unemployment among others. But it’s also true that sometimes we feel unhappy because we take ‘fictional realities’ for ‘real realities’. When we understand the difference we will have the headspace to think about other things that are actually matter (and possibly real) such as the importance of investing time and effort into relationships, loving people, and doing the work that is meaningful.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is simply an exploration. The author’s objective is to explore ideas and not arrive at a conclusion. So read it with a grain of salt. Happy reading!!

Maintaining your sanity while pursuing ‘Master’s degree’📚🧠

Picture credits: Host Student

A master’s degree can be overwhelming especially for international students like me. Leaving your home country where you’ve been living all your life, adjusting to an education system you are not accustomed to, and coming to a land full of strangers is enough to make you lose your sanity. Sometimes days get so bad that you feel like giving up on everything; literally everything. In those moments all that you wish for is maintaining your sanity. But you don’t know how. Too many commitments start taking a toll on your mental health because you feel like you’re always juggling. Don’t get me wrong. There are good days too. There are days full of positive experiences and they make you realise that things in life aren’t that bad. But when you are surrounded by negative feelings and experiences it’s often hard to figure out how to navigate your life. In this blog, I want to tell you how you can take care of your mental well-being while pursuing master’s degree in university. These are the things that helped me and I hope they might help you too.

(also check out my video below where I talked about my ‘Master’s degree experience at a UK university‘)

1. Get organised

Even though I managed to be topper of my class during undergraduate degree, I struggled because I lacked time management skills. It was like I was always studying but things never seemed to end for me. So the first thing I did before coming to Edinburgh was develop my time management skills and get organised. This was really helpful. Having a system that’s not cumbersome but easy and convenient is the most important thing one can do while in university. This is because university life demands commitments such as exams, essay deadlines, tutorials, extra-curricular, etc. To begin with, you can use a digital calendar like google calendar or even a notebook- whatever works for you. You can even use both of them like me. Make sure you check them everyday so that you are aware of what’s going on in your course.

2. Stay Consistent

Consistency is so important that I can’t say that enough. I am a believer of doing (at least) something each day rather than doing everything all at once. When you put little efforts each day into your studies, you make progress each day. You prevent yourself from becoming super anxious close to essay deadlines or upcoming exams. A lot of students under-estimate how much time things are going to take and put things off for later. Personally, this is not a good approach because it is an invitation to burnout. I am not saying you should never take a day off of studying. Frequent breaks are important and I encourage them. But when you know your essay is due next month, it is better to stay consistent in your level of efforts rather than leaving everything for the last moment.

3. Make time for the things you love

This is something I am trying to learn. I have a tendency to get super focused on my work or studies that I forget to make time for the things that give me pleasure. Like watching a movie or an episode of a comedy show, reading a book, writing, traveling, etc. Always make sure you take some time out each day and do something that you love. It can be anything. Think of it as an investment because university life can be very overwhelming and you need activities on a regular basis in order to rejuvenate your brain.

4. The bigger picture

It’s true that challenges are very discomforting. But what’s also true is that challenges are temporary. University life is indeed stressful but it’s all a part of process. Remember why you are in university, why you are studying in the first place- it’s because you love your subject and you want to do something meaningful with the knowledge you will attain. By reminding yourself of the bigger picture, you gain a refreshing perspective.

5. Make friends

Never under-estimate the importance of making friends in university. This is something I have learned recently. I am an introvert and a shy person so it’s not easy for me to make friends easily. I am also socially anxious which make things even harder. Regardless, it is crucial that you make friends for the sake of your mental wellbeing. Talking to people is a good way to stay sane. You can meet people whichever way suits you. For introverts, meeting in big groups can be a bit too much. What they can do is meet with people in smaller groups- maybe a group of 2-3 people.

6. Ask for help

Everyone struggles in university. But no one should have to go through the challenges alone. Universities now have such strong mental health support for students and staff members. And the services are all free provided by the professionals. It’s always helpful when you share your feelings and emotions with someone. It can be professionals or it can be your closed and loved ones like family members or maybe friends you trust with your problems.

DISCLAIMER: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are struggling with mental health issues, you must seek professional help immediately.

Against Empathy. Really?

Picture credits: Coonoor.medium.com

Imagine I am walking down a road to buy some groceries. On the sidewalk I see a homeless man who is begging for money. Some people give him the money while others pass by as if he doesn’t exist. I, on the other hand, trying my best to use my psychology degree to understand my own emotions while looking at a homeless man. Humans feel diverse emotions in their everyday lives. We feel anger, disgust, love, sadness, empathy, jealousy, envy, compassion, etc. We cannot eliminate these emotions altogether. But when they start getting out of our control (especially negative emotions) we should pause for a moment, accept what we are feeling and deal with them with utmost calmness and patience. 

Empathy is one of the emotions that is in spotlight because recent data in experimental psychology clearly says that it is good for our overall well-being. We should be kind and empathetic towards people and if we believe it is hard we can always become one through continuous practice. Empathy is about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s about feeling what they are feeling. Nothing wrong with that, eh? Well, looks like someone thinks a bit differently. Paul Bloom, a professor of Psychology at Yale University has written a book called “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”. You can say that this post is inspired by his argumentin the book. Professor Bloom argues that empathy is a poor moral guide. It exhausts and drains us completely. Going back to the scenario I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if I am going to be empathetic towards the homeless man then I will be putting myself in his situation. I’ll be feeling what he is feeling in that moment. I cannot speak for everyone but I am pretty sure I’ll be having a hard time to control myself because seeing someone in a situation where they are unable to meet their basic requirements is not easy. I’ll be drained emotionally, at least for some time. 

What should I do then? Should I just shut off my moral engine and become a misanthrope? No. I am not supposed to perceive the world as ‘me’ v/s ‘them’. Rather, what professor Bloom says is we should practice another emotion and that’s compassion. Compassion is about caring about other people but not necessarily feeling their suffering. So, in the case of an imagined homeless man compassion will allow me to care about him but not feel his suffering to an extent that I myself start suffering. There is a fine line between empathy and compassion but rather an important one. Clinical studies have also been done on empathy and compassion and their findings are quite interesting. Tania Singer, a social neuroscientist at the Max Planck Society in Germany is very well known in the study of empathy and compassion. She and her colleagues conducted a study where some participants were asked to practice empathy meditation and others compassion meditation. Their brain activities were recorded under a fMRI scanner. It was found that empathy was unpleasant and exhausting. On the other hand, compassion was exhilarating and more positive. 

In his book professor Bloom talked about two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy is a kind of empathy that allows us to process other people’s motivations, plans, etc. In other words, we are able to understand the mental state of others. So, if one of my good friends lost her job and I am able to understand why she is feeling sad or disappointed then I am probably practising cognitive empathy. However, in case of emotional empathy I will start putting myself in her shoes and start experiencing every little emotion she is feeling. This will not only be debilitating for me but I will also fail to help her out of the situation because I, too, am messed up. Empathy is said to be biased: we tend to be more empathetic towards people who are our loved ones than anonymous strangers. This eventually narrows down the scope of empathy. As Mother Teresa rightly put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” 

A relationship between a client and therapist might make the argument more concrete. If a therapist during a counselling session practices empathy then he or she will be very exhausted. It is because by being empathetic the therapist is feeling everything his or her client is feeling: all the emotions. This is not good as it will cloud therapist’s ability to act rationally and professionally. The whole rationale behind the psychotherapy will remain unfulfilled. 

Before becoming the president of The United States of America, Barack Obama gave a speech and an excerpt of his speech is:

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.

Mr Obama was right when he appealed to everyone to be empathetic towards people who are distant strangers. Empathy does play a crucial role: when we are empathetic we tend to help people more. I highly doubt if that is a bad thing. But if that same empathy starts to back fire we need to keep aside our empathy and be more compassionate. 

Can we use ‘disgust’ to combat COVID-19?

Picture credits: The Brink

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) which causes COVID-19 has completely changed the course of our lives. We are already experiencing the social and economic implications. What’s notable is that such implications are going to unfold more in the coming years. Evolutionary scientists are paying attention to many evolutionary insights that can help us better understand the pandemic and how it can be tackled. One such evolutionary insight is the use of ‘disgust’ emotion. 

Surprised? Confused? I mean what could possibly a single emotion called disgust help us craft solutions to the problems related to the pandemic. I believe it can. Evolutionary psychologists believe it can.

In recent years a great deal of psychological research has been conducted to study the emotion called disgust. Psychologists have found that disgust influences our social, political and moral judgements. People who are easily disgusted have different opinions in social, political and moral domains than people who are not so easily disgusted in their everyday lives. Evolutionary scientists propose that disgust is a ‘social protective system’ and tells a lot about how it continued to be a part of our evolutionary past. Disgust is a part of:

  1. Food psychology
  2. Sexual psychology 
  3. Physical contact psychology

When it comes to food psychology, the emotion protects us from ingesting food items that are rotten and full of toxins & pathogens. It had been helping our ancestors and it is helping us as well. When it comes to sexual psychology, disgust helps us to not get involved sexually with people (e.g. family members). Finally being a part of physical contact psychology, disgust makes sure we do not get in physical contact with surfaces displaying unknown bodily fluids, microbial infestation and people having some sort of visible infection.

When disgusting things are visible to the naked eye it is quite easy to stay away from them. For an example, if some food item is rotten and yet it is resting in our refrigerator we will immediately get rid of it because of the bad appearance and foul smell. However, that is not the case during the pandemic. A virus is not visible to a naked eye. And approximately 80% of the population stay asymptomatic while transmitting the virus at the same time. So when our closed relatives, friends and colleagues look perfectly well (even though they might be infected) we believe they are all well because a disgusting pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 is beyond our visibility. 

Psychologists believe we can use disgust to tackle the situation. But how? By showing images of people who are sick due to COVID-19 or images of the pathogen sitting on surfaces. This might trigger our ancient disgust system and people might start practicing physical distancing and and they might start wearing masks. It may sound unethical because it can be traumatic for some people. So it should be done with proper care. 

(This blog is inspired by one of the arguments presented in a paper titled “The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights”).

World

Picture credits: entitymag.com

When I am in my zone

And I listen to a song

I go back in time.

There is clarity in my mind.

Emotions come forth

Yet I am full of hope.

Music takes me far away

While I enjoy finding my way.

Syed Sumbul

Interview #1: In Conversation with Aditya Sisodia- Be mindful, focus on yourself and hire a coach

Aditya Sisodia (Picture credits: Quora)

Aditya Sisodia is an executive career coach, business mentor and online behavioral facilitator. He is also a corporate trainer and has worked with professionals in helping them grow personally and professionally. He is a certified coach and a recipient of various awards includingBrave Spirit Icon 2017“, “Youth Icon Recipient 2016” , “National Service Excellence Award 2016” and “National Education Award 2015“. He has also been mentioned in a few leading notable media such as INC42, Femina, Entrepreneur (INDIA), Bangalore Mirror, The Times of India and many others. His experience includes 50,000+ hours that involves facilitation/presentation/training/consulting on a wide variety of topics globally across Dubai, Sri Lanka, UK, Canada, Indonesia, Australia and USA.

Question 1: How does your morning and evening routine looks like?

Aditya Sisodia:  So, there is so much to explore in every waking moment. Talking about myself- I am more of a night owl than an early riser. So what I do is I tend to plan out my things like ‘what is my focus of the day ’, ‘what is my focus of the week’, ‘what is my focus of the month’ and finally ‘what is my focus of the year’. These questions are for me. This allows me clarity in my business as well as in my personal life. I often ask “As a partner friend, how am I using my time?” I know one thing and it’s that I have got the same 24 hours. I ask myself what all can I learn today to make my day productive. And after completing my activities for the day I reflect back on them. Reflection is very important. It is very crucial for the overall well-being of an individual.

There are few things which are totally non-negotiable for me. One of them is exercising every day for at least 60 minutes- be it jogging, walking, stretching, etc. I do check out financial news to keep myself updated. I also follow latest events but definitely in moderation. I also spend some quality time with my family where I just sit with them and we talk and listen to each other. Other than my family there are few people with whom I try to speak even if it is for five minutes because they are my Energizer. I call them my Mastermind group because every time I speak with them it is always a wonderful feeling. These people keep up that fire inside of me.

Question 2: What are some of your favourite books?

Aditya Sisodia: I don’t have any favourite books per say. I am more of a listener. I am into lot of podcasts and the podcasts that I listen to they are dependent on my mood and my focus of the day. One of the podcasts which I listen to is “Valuetainment” by one of my favourite hosts “Patrick Bet David” where he talks about entrepreneur lifestyle and business strategies. There is another one that I listen to- “The Mindset Mentor” by “Rob Dial”. I do have a Kindle and I’ve got a decent collection of books. I feel every title I come across has something to teach me and has something which I can just absorb. I keep revisiting my books and podcasts. I also listen to “Ideacast” by Harvard Business Review where they talk about many case studies. In conclusion I will say that asking me about my favourite book is quite a dicey question.

   

Question 3: When you feel overwhelmed what do you do to come back to your original state of mind?

Aditya Sisodia: One of the things which I have learned is whenever there is an overwhelming feeling it is important to be mindful and the best way to be mindful is to focus on our breathing. It is about centering us. There are times when while speaking to someone we have some emotional triggers due to a disagreement probably. So, in such times we should focus on our breathing. It helps me relax and recharge myself. It becomes important for me to gain a different perspective.

Question 4: You ran a marathon consecutively for 2 years in 2019 and 2020 after your kidney transplant. How did you prepare yourself for that- both mentally and physically?

Aditya Sisodia: One of the things which I have learned is that to be mentally strong you have to be physically strong as well. It is because your mind is as strong as your body. When you are feeling lethargic your mind won’t be able to think straight and the reason I planned for Marathon 42.2 kilometres is because it gave me something to look forward to. Even now I am competing in 100 Days of running where every day I clock in my hours- be it running, jogging, walking, cycling. The whole idea is to be taking care of your overall well-being. I also try to be mindful of the self-talk and marathon helps me to stay in control of my emotions. I don’t care who gets the gold medal and who takes the podium. For me, finishing the marathon gives me a sense of being a winner because earlier in my life I never ran even one kilometre. I wasn’t an active sports player before and now I believe being an athlete is all about mind game. A lot of mental sacrifice has to be done. A lot of control has to be there on the diet. Lifestyle has to be modified. Overall, it’s all about self-discipline.

Question 5: What would be a word of advice for someone who is trying to make a mark in this world?

Aditya Sisodia: Hire a Coach. Hire a Mentor. Make sure that you invest in your personal and professional development. Do not discount. Trust me, the experience you get while working with an expert in your chosen domain is priceless; something which can never be discounted.  You are able to accumulate years of experience just by brainstorming with your coach or mentor. You will be seeing the results eventually.

We need to re-define the “How are you?” question

Picture credits: singinghands.co.uk

Friend: Hi.

You: Hello.

Friend: How are you?

You: I am good. How are you?

Friend: I am good too.

(The biggest and most meaningful conversation just ended).

I am pretty sure this sounds familiar. Happens with me. Probably happens with you too.

We are living in the modern world of meaningless conversations and small talks. It is like everything is superficial. We might have some good intention behind asking our friends or loved ones how they are. It is necessary that we ask them. But in the midst of a noble intention sometimes we don’t realize that we are not very observant of what we are asking and what our closed ones are replying. Sometimes or I should say most of the time (in this modern world) we don’t see the pattern in our repeated questions and answers. That is why it is high time that we re-define the “How are you?” question.

“How are you” shouldn’t always be about work

How many times you ask someone how they are and you literally mean ‘how is your work’ or ‘how is your  internship/job going’  or ‘how’s studies going at the university’ or ‘how many online courses have you done during the COVID-19 pandemic’? Again, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I know it is going to sound cliche and you probably have heard it many times before- work is just a part of life, it is not the life. We don’t try to understand that may be someone out there doesn’t want us to ask how their professional life is going. Maybe they want us to ask them how they are doing besides their work. It’s like we have made up our lives totally about professional success. We constantly identify ourselves with the kind of work we do, our professional accomplishments, etc. as if life ends and begins with mere work. The next time you ask someone about their life make sure you don’t just make it about work. Be kind and humble enough to be a little bit observant. You might make their day better. 

“How are you” is also about- how are you regulating your emotions and what can I do to help if they are unregulated at this point of time

Everyone struggles. While it may be true that some people have to struggle a lot more than others, still, the bottom line is: we all struggle. It is inevitable. With different kinds of challenges and obstacles come different emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, disgust, happiness, envy, jealously, pleasure, etc. Sadly, we are very ignorant when it comes to understanding people’s varied emotions. We don’t care enough to ask how they are regulating their emotions. And so, extending a hand for help never crosses our minds. It is possible that such ignorance is unintentional and we aren’t aware of such little things. Nevertheless, it is high time that we help our loved ones in regulating their emotions- even if they ask for our help or not.

If you’re okay with their “I am fine” replies, stop asking your “how are you” question

How are you?” “I am fine.” Done. Trust me, nobody is fine. There is always something going on in everybody’s life. It’s just that some people hide it better than the others. Our problem is that we let it go if someone says he or she is fine. I think a little push is what we need so that we create a comfortable environment for our closed ones to be able to share things with us. I don’t think we should be very quick in jumping on to another question whenever someone says they are fine. It is like we are all doing a formality by asking our superfluous the “How are you?” question.  

It is easy to ask “How are you?”. But it is very difficult to bear with the real story behind that question.

Psychology behind Retaliation- Part 1

Picture credits: heroism.wikia.com

A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.” Francis Bacon

The very first time I read this line, I couldn’t understand it. Fortunately, the second time I could.

Revenge is such a common word in our dictionary. We don’t speak of it very often. However, we don’t want to refrain ourselves from taking revenge from someone who has hurt us. We feel like we deserve justice and the offender must pay the price. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

By ‘we’ I am not saying I am an exception. I am not saying I don’t feel like taking revenge from people. When someone says something bad to me or hurts me emotionally (especially when it is deliberate) I just feel so angry that I want to retaliate believing it is going to make me feel good.

Or does it?

Does retaliation actually make me feel good?

Does it happen with everyone?

Revenge an emotional catharsis

We have always believed that exhibiting our emotions results in catharsis which is called an emotional catharsis. By venting out aggression we take anger out of our bodies only to find that it make us feel good. This idea is not entirely wrong but it is not entirely correct either. It is true we must vent out our emotions because repressing our emotions is dangerous. When we repress our emotions we bury them in our unconscious minds and very soon they come back to haunt us. So, in a way exhibiting our aggression or any other emotions is very helpful. But it doesn’t last very long. Seeking revenge feels sweet and it is sweet only in the short term; only in the moment. After that it only takes a toll on our emotional & physical health and keeps us engaged in a vicious cycle of retaliation.  Even scientists agree.

Revenge is sweet. But not too sweet

A very important research was conducted by a group of Swiss researchers that validated the idea that seeking revenge feels good. Researchers divided participants into groups of two people and made them take part in an economic exchange game. The game was to split a pot of money between the partners. Some participants were wronged by their partners in the sense that splitting of money wasn’t fair. When participants who trusted their partners were given a chance to punish them, researchers scanned their brains to record brain activity while they were busy introspecting how to seek revenge. And researchers found that there was a rush in the brain’s activity while participants were busy taking their decisions. The brain area showing activity is called caudate nucleus (an area in human brain involved in processing rewards). Therefore, validating that revenge feels good to humans.

But that’s not all.

Scientists wanted to know what actually happens in brain’s activity not in the immediate moment of retaliation but after some period of time, say, weeks or months later. Kevin Carlsmith along with Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University conducted a research to prove that there is more to revenge than we imagine. A group of participants were randomly selected and they were divided into groups of four people. All the four people were given a dollar and they could either pitch in the group pot or keep for themselves. Furthermore, researchers said that they will be adding a 40% more dividend to the whole group before dividing the boosted pot among all four members of the groups. This move by the researchers provided two possibilities: the best for the whole group would be if all the four members of the group donate their dollar while what is best for an individual member is if they keep their dollar and also get a share from the final amount accumulated in the pot. But there was a catch. One member in each group was a confederate and acted as a free rider (someone who keeps his dollar and also receives a share from the final amount in pot). Some participants were not given a chance to do anything after knowing that they had been morally violated by one of their members while other participants were given an opportunity to seek revenge for an unjust act. Both the groups were then supposed to record their feelings immediately and after 10 minutes. Also, some participants were asked to just pen down their feelings of how they would feel if they had seen a selfish act but were not allowed to retaliate.

What were the findings?

  1. People who were allowed to punish free riders felt a lot more worse than they had imagined they would had there been a chance to take revenge or retaliate.
  2. People who were allowed to punish free riders also felt a lot worse than the ones who did not do anything to seek revenge.
  3. Ten minutes later punishers continued to think over the selfish act and that eventually prevented them from letting go. Therefore, not helping them much emotionally.

The study is highly significant because it tells us that revenge is not the end of our pain. We think revenge will make us feel good and it will solve everything. But reality is something different. There is more to revenge than we imagine.