If You’re Blessed. Be a Blessing.

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No one ever became poor by giving.” – Anne Frank

Anne Frank was a German- Dutch diarist, a Holocaust survivor who posthumously gained fame with the publication of her all time famous book “The Diary of a Young Girl”. For approximately two years she and her family lived in a secret annex to avoid getting caught by the Nazis. However, they got caught and only her father , Otto Frank managed to survive. The times she and her entire family was going through is completely unimaginable for all of us. In spite of living in such ordeals Anne Frank did not stop being optimistic and the best version of herself. While she had nothing to give to anyone outside that secret place she was living in, she believed in the power of giving. She said that no one in this world has ever become impoverished by giving to other people. 

Why you must give?

We all talk about giving. We all say if we have so much to be grateful for we must never back down from helping others. In other words, if we have so many countable blessings we must become a blessing to someone else too. I think that’s appropriate because life is not a life if it is lived not in the service of others (please mind that living in the service of others doesn’t mean we should forget our own selves). Many pundits and philosophers also believed in this and made the best usage of words to express themselves:

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.”Leo Tolstoy

“We make a living by what we get, we make life by what we give.”- Winston Churchill

And finally…

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”  –Chinese Proverb

Is this enough? I mean is this the only reason we must give to other people? No. While poets and philosophers were right, science has now ample amount of data to prove that giving is a good thing and it adds meaning to our lives. 

In the year 2008 an interesting study was conducted by researchers at Harvard University and University of British Columbia on the benefits of giving. In the study they found that spending money on others lead to lasting improvements in people’s overall happiness levels. Another study was conducted by Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University and in one of their annual studies ‘Women Give 2017’ it was found that there is a connection between charitable giving and life satisfaction. In other words, there is a relation between how satisfied we feel in our lives and how charitable our attitudes are. Economists Bill Harbaugh & Daniel Burghart and psychologist Ulrich Mayr conducted a study in the year 2007 which was published in a prestigious journal Science. They were interested in observing the changes in brain activities when donations were voluntary or mandatory. Every participant was given a sum of $100 and were told no one would know how much of it they had kept with themselves or donated. The participants were kept under fMRI machines while they made decisions whether to keep some money or donate it. Their brain activity was measured by an fMRI. Sometimes subjects had a choice to choose if they were willing to donate some money to a local food bank while other times tax was levied and some of the money was sent to a local food bank without seeking the permission of the participants. Researchers found that when the participants chose to donate, the areas of the brain were lit up that release pleasure chemical called dopamine. These are the same brain areas which respond when we are involved in activities including eating and sex. On the other hand, when subjects had to donate in spite of their choice same brain areas were lit up but the activity was slower than in the previous case. 

These experiments are only a drop in the ocean. There are tons of other studies that clearly demonstrate that giving to other people is a good thing. Bill Gates is one of the names that is cited the most when it comes to philanthropy. His wealth is estimated to be nearly $94 billion and he has given away approximately $50 billion over the years to various charities. Other well-known philanthropists include Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, J K Rowling, etc. They all seem to have understood that by giving no one becomes poor. Ever. 

What can you give?

Now we know donating money to charities is an excellent practice to boost our psychological well-being. Even science agrees. But is it really about money? Does it always have to be about dollars or pounds or euros? Is it really that only if I am donating a part of my income to various charities and people in general then I am contributing in uplifting the society? Was Anne Frank merely talking about money when she said about ‘giving’? 

While it is true that it’s money which often comes to our minds whenever we are talking about giving something, we need to expand our perspective. Not everyone is in a position to help someone financially. Sometimes you’re helping someone if you are being kind and understanding with them. You’re also helping someone if you’re guiding them correctly so that they stay on the right path throughout their lives. Moreover, you’re helping someone by being the best version of yourself. They may not be given much worth but they are definitely worthy. Currently, I am not earning any money and I cannot help someone money wise. I cannot buy anyone any gifts on their birthdays. Until that day comes I am trying to help people with everything else. I am trying to become a better person each day so that my goodness is out there in the world. 

Mental health goes back to over 2,000 years ago

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Philosophy is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t mean to be rude but that’s true. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of one’s life. At least, it should be. There is an old story Thales of Miletus who was a Greek philosopher. His friends used to make jokes saying, Those who can, do, others philosophize.” To someone like me who keeps philosophy at the top (other than science and writing) it seems quite offensive. Surprisingly, as the story goes Thales took the words of his friend seriously and made huge amounts of money. Looks like, philosophy does pay off.

Seneca, a stoic from Spain was born over 2,000 years ago. He was a terrific philosopher who made huge contributions to the stoic philosophy. He was the son of Seneca, the Elder. Seneca got his education from Rome and in spite of belonging to a wealthy family he left no stone unturned in imparting his wisdom. He had written a letter in his famous book “Letters from a stoic” where he talked about the importance of mental health. I was a bit surprised when I read that letter because it was hard for me to believe how possibly someone could be talking about such a delicate yet crucial subject such a long time ago. Yet he did. It’s all out there.

There are some key lines in that particular letter Seneca wrote. The excerpts are a clear indication to his efforts of prioritizing mental health. In other words, an attempt to maintain equality between physical and mental health.

  1. “The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.”

I am a skeptic when it comes to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. I believe what I haven’t explored and what I don’t understand yet should not be talked about. So, for my peace of mind and to avoid any sort of confusion for the readers I am going to attribute ‘spirit’ as human mind or simply human brain. Seneca has wisely separated the human body and human mind thereby separating two types of health: physical health and mental health. Seneca is not wrong in stating the importance of making some time for our mental recoveries. We are exerting ourselves physically ignoring the mental variable from the equation. Believing hand fracture is a problem while depressed mood for more than 3 weeks just a phase of life is nothing but an invitation to crushing our mental health by all means. If we are merely focused on recovering physically and not mentally or emotionally then everything is going to take a toll on us. That is why we must be careful enough about prioritizing not just our physical bodies but mental bodies too.

2. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging heights about and jumping. Pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon. Exercise it day and night.”

Being physically healthy is the need of an hour because we are living in societies plagued with health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc. Even Seneca around 2,000 years ago talked about moving our physical bodies to remain active and healthy. He suggested running, jumping, swinging heights out of many other exercises. But he was also very particular about practicing mental exercises. He said ‘return from body to mind very soon’. We may think mental clarity can be compromised with. I think it is the biggest mistakes of one’s life. We cannot move far if our minds are over flowing with baggage. So, in a way I believe if we are physically exerting ourselves once in a day to grow our muscles stronger, we should also exert ourselves mentally to grow our mental muscles.

3. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Occasional breaks from our busy schedules are very important. After all, there is a limit to everything. Seneca argues in his letter that we must always make time to refresh mentally because we can’t function to the best of our abilities if our emotional reserves are constantly depleting. At the same time, he is very careful about not letting that leisure time increase too much that we become lazy and sloppy. Relaxation is crucial and it is highly needed but too much relaxation is not good. Too much relaxation torn us apart into pieces and then more efforts are required to put those pieces back together.

4. “The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.”

I am an ardent believer of practicing gratitude regularly. Even Seneca agrees. He says that life is no good if it has no place for gratitude. People who aren’t grateful for big and small things in life can never manage to stay content. Such people are always focused on building their future. They think future is the answer to everything. They are wrong. Present moments matter more. If we are present in the moment it does not mean that we become completely ignorant towards our future goals and make no plans. It means taking things one step at a time. Be active for your future. But don’t ruminate on it. It is not unhealthy.

History and philosophy have a lot to teach us. We just need to open our minds to let wisdom enter.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our very important need right now

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It is August 2020. A year before, it was August 2019. Not very complicated to comprehend, right? But I am pretty sure that the current situation we are in right now was 100% beyond the comprehension of a human mind, exactly a year before.

Yet, here we are.

It was March 11, 2020, when the WHO (World Health Organization) declared that the novel corona-virus (COVID-19) is a global pandemic. It was no more an epidemic or an outbreak because over the past two weeks China saw its number of cases increasing 13 times while the number of countries with cases increased 3 times. The pandemic is not only a health emergency; it’s also a social and economic emergency. Due to the non- pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing people are getting affected to a greater extent due to a sense of isolation. Economies aren’t doing that well- in the month of August UK declared that its economy has suffered its biggest slump in a period of 11 years due to the corona-virus lock down between April and June. The economy of the UK shrank 20.4% in relation to first 3 months of the year 2020. One of the most badly affected industries is Travel and tourism industry.

Times are such that everyone wants to go out and rejuvenate themselves by taking a vacation. Paradoxically that’s the exact thing we can’t do right now. The COVID-19 is jeopardizing our very important need right now.

Want to but Can’t

Every single human being who is alive right now and trying to survive the current times is struggling in his/her unique ways. Everyone wants to take a break. Everyone wants to be able to go outside without bothering about the likelihood of getting infected with the virus. Everyone wants to be able to eliminate the physical distance between us. Everyone wants to be able to take a vacation without giving it a second thought. But it is not possible especially if we want to come alive out of the pandemic, especially if we want to refrain ourselves from worsening the situation. People working from home are dealing with their own kind of struggles- there doesn’t seem to be any fixed working hours. Companies are thinking that since people are at home doing nothing much should be made to work as much as possible. Mental health problems are on the rise. All the healthcare and front line workers are suffering with varied psychological issues including increased anxiety, depressive symptoms, insomnia, etc. It would not be wrong to assert that everyone wants to fulfill a very important need i.e. a vacation to escape from all the stress. Unfortunately, we can’t. As much as we want to we cannot and we shouldn’t. The pandemic is taking a toll on all of us.

Now what?

Nature doesn’t like complying with our conveniences. In life, there are things that we control and the things that we don’t. The pandemic is something which we can’t go back in time and change. It’s here now and its effect on every aspect of our lives is also here. So, there is no point in cribbing about it. It’s out of our hands. But what we do control is how wisely we are responding to the situation by following the guidelines provided by authentic sources and people.

It is true we can’t book a ticket and land on any part of any country (due to health reasons and travel restrictions) in order to rejuvenate ourselves. The methods have now changed, at least for a while. But that shouldn’t mean we can’t have a sense of adventure. We can. All we need is a little shift in our perception.

  1. Make little things count

While all of our big plans are on hold we should be perceptive enough to focus on little things. Being grateful of every little event that is happening every single day can help us seek our own sense of adventure. Call a friend. Ask how he or she is. Go down the memory lane while talking. Revisit all the good memories. Will it be bad enough to call it a little adventure?

2. Take occasional breaks at home only

It is quite plausible to get bored of staying at home most of the time. So, take a break. Promise yourself to work 5 or 6 days a week and give yourself a break for the whole day. Don’t do anything that involves work. Just give yourself some ‘me time’ (I know it sounds easier than done but with practice we can surely get better).

3. Do something you’ve been delaying for a long time

It is not wise and smart to let your brain be completely free because that gives birth to a whole set of new problems. That is why it is advisable to keep ourselves busy (and I don’t mean too busy). So, figure out something you have been delaying for quite a long time and do it (if it can be done at home). That just might compensate for that vacation you had planned.

We, humans, are a lot more resilient than we think. We know how to survive the worst of the situations. We are already surviving the current situation. A lot has been put on hold but it is not permanent. Everything is transitory.

Writing Gratitude Diary for 30 days as a challenge

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Gratitude and well-being

‘Gratitude’ has become a very common word these days. I see everybody writing or talking about it. In a way it makes me feel good because gratitude has many benefits and seeing people taking it seriously gives me a relief that they will be all right. However, it becomes bothersome when people merely talk about it but never act upon it. Probably it is because they don’t understand it well enough– they think they do but actually they don’t. I just hope I am wrong.

I can speak for myself when it comes to not fully understanding what gratitude is all about. Thankfully life found numerous ways to make me wise. Martin Seligman, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. Before the emergence of positive psychology, psychology was all about mental illnesses, flaws and shortcomings in people’s personalities. And Professor Seligman changed it. He wanted to promote the idea that we all have strengths within us and to live a happy, satisfied life filled with meaning it is very important that we focus on our strengths and not just weaknesses.

There are many studies on gratitude & well-being. One of the interesting ones is when researchers asked respondents or participants to do one of the three exercises. One group of participants was asked to write down 5 things they were grateful for each week for around 10 weeks. The other group was asked to write things that were negative and they weren’t grateful for (for 10 weeks). The last of the three groups was made to write about neutral events (neither positive nor negative) taking place in their lives for 10 weeks. It was found at the end of 10 weeks that people who took out some time to write gratitude diary continuously recorded being 25% happier than the ones who didn’t.

Sounds interesting, right? Well, it would be better if you also take out some time every day to just reflect upon the things that made you happy and write them down.

Gratitude diary and me

My experience with writing a gratitude diary consecutively for 30 days was a different experience altogether.

  1. Honestly, I dreaded writing gratitude diary. But my commitment surpassed it.

The challenge I undertook to write 3 things I was grateful for during my day wasn’t easy. It was because I didn’t feel writing it at all. Sometimes I was feeling very sleepy that I just wanted to sleep on it. Sometimes my hands couldn’t manage to write properly and I just wanted to write a single word and get done with it. I literally dreaded it. In spite of all the laziness I did it. And I am glad that I did because I was committed to it. When I decided to undertake the challenge I was very much sure that I would not be able to it. But I proved myself wrong. My unwillingness to write few good words that made my day felt short in front of my commitment to stay stick to a 30 day challenge.

2. I was seeking pearls within an ocean of sorrows, sadness and disappointments.

There were days when I was sitting on my chair thinking very hard about 3 good things that I was grateful for. All I could think of was negative chain of events, boredom, frustration, helplessness, etc. Such moments made me realize that happiness isn’t always readily available. Many times we have to take some extra efforts to find or create it. Our days get so bad that all we think of is negativity. And that is okay. But not always. A single cup of coffee or tea with your loved ones or even all by yourself is enough to bring a smile on your face. Like I said, you can find pearls deep within an ocean of sorrows, sadness and disappointments; if you try hard enough.

Even though writing gratitude diary some days didn’t feel very appealing and I felt very lazy, I know very well (through empirical studies as mentioned above) that it is very crucial. I am not saying that by writing down 3 or 5 things that made you happy before going to bed is going to make you the happiest person on this earth. Trust me, that’s not what I am suggesting. There is no causation but co-relation. What I am saying is that human brain responds to gratitude and by practicing it regularly we can teach ourselves to be more optimistic and thus at least a little bit happier than before.

I am working full time. Yet my work has zero economic value.

Before I begin I must warn you that you might find my blog post boring and not relevant. But if you care enough to read it you are probably going to get an idea about something that you haven’t experienced before.

So, bear with me.

Currently, I am unemployed. I completed my bachelors degree three years ago. Although I have a post graduate diploma, I haven’t gotten myself into a master’s programme yet. Almost every friend of mine is done with a master’s degree. Some are working. They are earning money while I, on the other hand, have only earned 5000 in my life so far during an internship. There is no comparison or jealousy here. And I know very well that grass is always greener on the other side. My point is that I am here telling my story. Just mine.

 I wake up at 5 am five days a week. I freshen up and make a cup of coffee for myself. I retire to my study room and try drinking  coffee mindfully. After that I meditate (but I suck at focusing my mind so it is still a road under construction). After doing a couple of small chores I go back to my study room and do some of my personal work including studying. Two to three times a week I go out to get milk by my bicycle (with full protection, in case you’re wondering). After having my breakfast I start up with the household chores. Yes, I study and do household work. Yet my ‘physical work’ has no economic worth. It takes about 3-3:30 hours to get done with all the household work including dusting, brooming, moping, washing utensils and cleaning bathroom that I have been doing alongside my mother for the past 4 months now. In the evening, there are certain tasks that are needed to be done and they also consume some of my time. In the midst of all this I manage to do my own work (requiring mental energy), maintain my social life and take some time out for myself.

There are certain things that I am realising through my experiences and I want to throw some light on some of the realizations.

Household chores are no joke. Never belittle them

I used to think ‘mental labor’ can be really exhausting. Truth be told, it is still true. But after familiarizing myself with ‘physical labor’ I have come to believe that doing household work is no lesser than studying a textbook or writing a term paper. It is a job where you can never take a day off from. It is always with you- 24*7, all 365 days a year. There is so much of non-economic value but the economic worth is a big zero. No matter how hot or cold it is you have to do all the basic work that is needed to be done during a day. It’s like your mind is constantly busy with one thing or the other. So, it is my urge to you that you never belittle the work.

Frustration is of no help

It is important that I don’t suppress my emotions and say that “I am frustrated“. I do that. But many times I let my emotions control me and so, snap out at people. That’s when I realize my frustration is getting out of my hands and I need to understand that it is not helping me in any way at all. Even though sometimes I hate doing it, I tell myself that there is no other choice. It doesn’t always make me feel better every time but it’s worth a shot.

Getting better at time management

In spite of all the frustration and hate, I must say I am getting better at managing my time. I wasn’t very good at time management and struggled to get things done and have a non anxious life. But I can see that it is changing now. I am becoming better at managing things that are important during my day. Whilst I believe I have a scope of improving a lot in the future I am pretty much satisfied with my time management skills.

Yes, I am working full time at my home. I am not getting paid. I am old enough to be earning or at least have a master’s degree. And all this is not in my favor right now. Nevertheless, I am grateful for my life and family every single day. During this time (and I mean COVID-19) if I am safe, my family is safe and we have enough money to have a decent life I don’t think anything else should matter way too much.