Choosing to remain hopeful, mindful and thankful

“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” -Gandhi

I found this good question on Quora and thought to share my thoughts on the subject here on Medium.

One useful attitude that has worked for me over the years is to remain optimistic but mindful of the expectations we place upon ourselves as we get older. Remain hopeful, in other words, but be wary of the dangers of untethered optimism.

And when things do go wrong, because they inevitably will — most of us will likely suffer cancer, get divorced, lose a job, experience an accident, or even lose a loved one — we remain steeled because we had a Plan B or Plan C.

We expect downside but remain hopeful of our abilities to survive such events. Be a realistic optimist.

In my case, last year we lost my younger brother to cancer and our family dog of 11 years to illness within a year of each other. It was a tough period by any measure. I took time off from working in corporate, traveled, volunteered in a hospital. I started writing again.

Reality Check

There’s a recent good study that suggests that joy peaks at youth and old age. When we’re younger, we have high expectations of ourselves — to be a great son or daughter, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, perhaps even a CEO, statesman, celebrity. We set high, optimistic goals.

Then life happens. We get married, enter a profession, have kids. Reality kicks in. Some achieve goals, some do not. A few happily settle. Others feel varying degrees of disillusionment, depression, maybe even anger.

We overestimated chances of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimated the chances of experiencing bad events.

Some try to cope, seek escape or see a therapist. A few find God. Others turn to drugs, or in extreme cases, blame their families, hurt their communities.

Be Thankful

There’s an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens” book that I feel applies.

“Happiness does not really depend on health, wealth or even community. Rather it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.

When things improve, expectations balloon and consequently even dramatic conditions can leave us dissatisfied.

When things deteriorate, expectations shrink and consequently even a severe illness might pretty much leave you as happy as before.”

Prophets, poets and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied (thankful) for what you have is more important than getting more of what you want. Modern research … reaches the same conclusions the ancients did.”

Mr. Harari added that today’s modern institutions are “depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.” He cites mass media and advertising.

To those two, I would add social media and consumerism. Think of the number of times your FOMO (fears of missing out) or anxieties rose by looking at your Facebook feed, or seeing your neighbors enjoy their newer car, bigger house, flatter TV or latest toy.

Conditioned to compare or compete, or perhaps out of envy, low self-esteem, some of us mindlessly pursue even bigger goals — get a faster car, the corner office, a bigger house, dream vacations.

It’s like a race against an imagined foe. Some even contemplate shortcuts, cheat, lie, steal. Some become more angry, others more unhappy. Our expectations begin to exceed our own abilities.

Be Mindful

Remaining mindful, a concept rooted in Buddhism and which connotes knowing your own truths, motivations, to me, really means conditioning your own mind, realizing the impermanence of most things — like youth, happiness or even feelings like anger or envy — and recognizing your humanity in others, particularly those of your closest relations.

Research has consistently proven that good relations keep us happiest and healthier.

In a podcast on “Reading, Happiness, Habits and Systems for Decision-making” (transcript) between Shane Parrish and Naval Ravikant (CEO of AngelList), Mr. Ravikant suggests,

“Turn off your monkey mind. Your mind should be a servant and a tool, not a master. It’s not something that should be controlling and driving you 24/7.”

Cultivate a boxer’s mind. Get up when you feel beaten down.

Serve Others

And in recognizing our own humanity in others, consider the path of service, or volunteerism, to offer those who have been disadvantaged, are sick or are in need a path to their own happiness.

Mahatma Gandhi once said -

“The best way to find joy in yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Many years ago over many hot days starting in March 1930, Gandhi, who once was a barrister with expensive tastes, embarked on a 240-mile Salt March, a distance that is the equivalent of about 9 marathons, from his base in Ahmedabad to the Arabian Coast to protest British salt taxation practices.

He was jailed at the conclusion of the march, along with 60,000 other protesters. Gandhi eventually lost his life to an assassin in 1948 as India earned its independence.

Gandhi remained mindfully hopeful of what could be achieved by such a long struggle, but also realistic of its costs.

Laugh More

Finally, consider the approach of laughter. Gandhi was a man also known as much for his non-violent, servant leadership as for his infectious sense of humor, a quality many scholars say helped him withstand the rigors of the long march as well as the long, arduous journey of India’s struggle for freedom.

Gandhi once joked -

“The most violent weapon on earth is the table fork. If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”

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