3 Life Concepts That Might Make You Happier (Based on Ancient Wisdom)
The following is an edited excerpt from the book, Positive Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Wisdom to Create a Flourishing Life by Sanj Katyal.
What exactly does a good life look like?
If I ask you if you want to be happy, the answer is “Of course.”
If I then ask you what it means to be happy, the answer becomes less obvious.
The problem with the word “happy” is that it denotes an emotional state that’s often regarded as transitory. “Yesterday I was happy, but today I’m sad,” or, “I will be happy this weekend when I don’t have to work.” This type of happiness is not what Aristotle was referring to when he stated, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
The word that he and other Greek philosophers used was eudaimonia. Etymologically, it consists of the words eu (good) and daimon (spirit). Eudaimonia has been loosely translated as “happiness,” but Aristotle and other philosophers, including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, thought of eudaimonia more as human flourishing, or optimal living, rather than as a transitory emotional state. This flourishing life can be viewed as a model for others and as a life well lived.
If we shift our focus from trying to be happy to attempting to live a good life, we can use ancient wisdom from religious and philosophical texts, along with modern, evidence-based research, to craft a road map toward this state of eudaimonia. It’s important to understand that, as Aristotle searched for the highest good in life, he explored many popular concepts as potential candidates. The pursuit of pleasure was often seen by many, both during and following Aristotle’s time, as the highest ideal. Certainly, hedonistic pursuits of modern times follow this tenet of pleasure as the main goal of life.
But Aristotle readily dismissed this concept because both cattle and humans can pursue and experience pleasure. Therefore, because pleasure is not unique to humans and can be achieved by base animals, it cannot be the highest goal of human existence. The next concept he considered was honor. This also was quickly discarded because the ability to confer honor depends upon the giver as well as the recipient. (We all know people from whom we would not want to receive honorable recognition.) As Aristotle argued against other concepts, he finally settled on happiness, eudaimonia. Happiness is the end, and not a means toward anything else.
Every action can be traced to an attempt to increase well-being. If I ask you why you want to be rich, the answer usually can be distilled to an attempt to be happy. We never strive to be happy in order to be rich, but often strive to be rich in order to be happy. Happiness is also self-sustaining. If someone is happy, we don’t usually ask whether they are also rich or attractive. On the other hand, if someone is rich or famous, we often ask whether they are also happy. Happiness is self-sufficient as an end in itself.
My Path To Flourishing
After finishing my residency and fellowship, I was on the typical path of most young doctors. I was excited about my new private practice job and the associated increase in income. I bought a new car, sold our small house in the city, and moved to a larger house in a good suburban school district. All the years of hard work had finally paid off, and I expected to have a dramatic boost in my happiness level.
To everyone around me, I was living the dream. However, I soon became aware of two major problems: my expenses were increasing with my salary, and I wasn’t any happier than I had been during other periods in my life. In many ways, my new lifestyle often caused more anxiety and stress. It was at that point that I realized I needed to change my behaviors. I needed to learn different things in order to live a different life.
Despite humanity’s near-single-minded drive to achieve happiness and contentment, the majority of people on the planet are far from their eudaimonia. A state of fully realized potential, or dharma, requires insight and a deep connection to your true self. Without this self-awareness, you can’t fulfill the fundamental need for meaning and impact. We are all meant to engage in a continuous process of learning, growing, and living well. Unlocking this potential in order to live a more authentic, joyful, and meaningful life can, and must, become our life’s work.
There have been some common themes in the steps that I have taken to move closer to my full potential. Perhaps the most fundamental theme is one of self-awareness. In order to gain this insight, I needed to stop living life on autopilot and ask myself some difficult questions. One of the most important habits that helped me to answer these questions was to begin journaling consistently.
My journal was a sanctuary where I could freely discuss my worries and perceived failings. There were many days when I could feel a deep unrest inside of me. In the past, I would simply push past this feeling, which would eventually go away. By taking the time to write about it, I discovered that the reason for the unrest was often because I had acted in a way that I knew was not optimal. The inner tension could be related to an uncomfortable interaction at work or an anxiety about a future event that was out of my control.
In time, I could occasionally recognize this unrest and resolve it without the need to write about it. Keeping a journal also gave me the space to develop more insight and a broader perspective on important topics that I was learning over the years. I could sketch new ideas and try to put complex concepts into my own words to gain a better understanding of them.
While I wrote extensively on many big-picture questions, there emerged three major questions that helped me explore the gap between my current life and my fully realized potential:
- What am I doing?
- How am I acting?
- Why does it matter?
The first question I asked was “What am I doing?” This has to do with the vision of my place in the world, my unique dharma, my sacred duty. I realized that if we don’t know where we want to go, have a firm vision of what we want to be and how we want to be living, then we will just bounce around reacting to various people and circumstances. This was how I often felt in my own life.
When exploring what I was meant to do in this world and trying to answer the larger question of “What am I doing?” I took time to journal on some deeper questions:
- What did I love to do as a child?
- What do I do that doesn’t feel like work?
- What would I pay to do?
- If I had $10 million in the bank and had already traveled everywhere that I wanted to go, what would I do each day?
This process took a several months. I forced myself to answer these questions in my journal. When I did, I realized that what I really loved to do was to learn about how to live better. I really enjoyed studying concepts at the intersection of philosophy and psychology that gave me more insight on leading an optimal life.
When thinking about my younger years, I had always gravitated toward books that tried to provide answers to the deeper questions of life. I remember reading The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and I’m OK — You’re OK by Thomas Harris in high school. On my visits to India as a child, I picked up several books by the well-known Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. As I looked around me, I saw many people who had good lives by anyone’s standards but were not living the Good Life, one of flourishing or eudaimonia. Instead, there was a lot of anxiety, stress, depression, and generalized discontent. People were functioning but not flourishing, and this included me.
I knew through my reading and learning that there must be a different way to live, and I was determined to find it. I thought about my kids and how I wanted them to learn these principles earlier in life. That deep desire is what drives me to continue to learn. It drove me to write this book. It drives me to teach these principles to a variety of people from students to doctors.
This leads to the second question on my road to fully realized potential: how am I acting?
I realized that it’s not enough to have a clear vision of what I want to do if I lie, cheat, and treat people poorly in my effort to fulfill this vision. This will not lead to a life of flourishing. Answering this question when I was younger would have been great. Understanding what virtue meant, and how important concepts like integrity, honesty, and compassion contributed to an overall sense of tranquility certainly would have made my youth better. I struggled mightily in these areas. While I have grown into these virtues, it has not been without significant effort.
The first part of learning to act well was to understand the concept of virtue, defined as “excellence of character.” It has become clear to me that there are unshakable principles of effective living that are common across all cultures and time periods. As I read many authors, ranging from Seneca to Stephen Covey, they all preached that living the Good Life is synonymous with developing excellent character traits like integrity, perseverance, gratitude, courage, and service. For me, one very simple way to develop virtue was to adopt the Golden Rule: treat everyone the way I want to be treated. Although this seemed overly simple and even trite, it really worked when I thought about it in the moment of a stressful interaction. If someone interrupted me at work, I could respond more often with patience rather than react with annoyance. Instead of becoming upset at a rude driver, I could empathize that they may be having a bad day.
The second part of acting well was having a clear understanding of what values and behaviors were important to me. What does my ideal self look like?
- Did I want to be calm and patient in the face of stressors, or did I want to overreact at every little inconvenience?
- Did I want to appreciate what I have — health, security, freedom — or did I want to complain about what I didn’t have?
- Did I want to treat others how I want to be treated, or just treat them based on how I felt at that moment?
- Did I want to be authentic and honest with people, or simply act the way I thought would make me more popular?
- Did I want to be optimistic and enthusiastic and focus on what was going well, or did I want to get down on myself at the first sign of struggle?
By having this clear vision of my ideal self, I have been able to answer the question “How am I acting?” Of course, many things still upset me, and I’m often far from perfect in my actions, but at least I know how I should be acting.
The final question that I then asked myself was, “Why does it matter?” What difference did I make? To avoid regret later in life, I wanted to face these difficult questions while I still had time. It’s commonly said that, on your deathbed, only two things matter:
- Who did you become — did you realize your full potential?
- How many people did you serve? How many lives did you improve?
By answering the first two questions — “What am I doing?” and “How am I acting?” — I could get closer to my unique calling in life and try to perform it with excellent character.
There was one final step on the road to an optimal life: applying these efforts to something larger than myself. The concept of service to others is a common theme among most religious and philosophical texts. Modern psychology has scientifically validated service as a key component to happiness. For me, serving others has never come naturally. What I have come to realize is that an optimal (flourishing) life consists of both purpose (fully realized potential) and meaning (service). I believe that we all have the same purpose in life: to fully realize our potential, our highest self, in what we do and how we act. However, it’s not until we use this potential for a cause larger than ourselves that we are able to gain meaning and truly lead an optimal life.
Answering the above questions has certainly brought some clarity and direction to my life. However, there is a big difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Intellectually, I often know the correct response or action, but still let my emotions get the better of me. Some say it’s like the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Anyone can gain knowledge, but it’s not until you apply this knowledge that you will gain wisdom.
Given the importance of achieving happiness, it’s surprising how little training we receive in understanding the principles behind well-being. Perhaps even more shocking is how little attention most people pay to what actually makes them happy. Many people live lives filled with anxiety, worry, regret, and discomfort. They don’t really understand why their thoughts and actions are not making them happier. They continue to long for the bigger house, new romance, nicer car, or winning lottery ticket to be able to finally be happy. These things may lead to temporary spikes in happiness (defined as a transitory emotional state) but don’t contribute significantly to the pursuit of eudaimonia or a flourishing life.
I’m doing fine but don’t really feel a lot of joy or fulfillment — isn’t there more to life?
To find an answer to this question, and to explore the nature of life itself, the Bhagavad Gita offers us some guidance. Mahatma Gandhi was never without a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s rumored that he started each day brushing his teeth and reading at the same time. In his autobiography, Gandhi expressed his love for the text as such:
When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies — and my life has been full of external tragedies — and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavad Gita.
As a child, I attended the temple and went to Hindu camps, but no one ever mentioned the Bhagavad Gita. I asked my father about his experience with the text. He told me that everyone in India already knows the story, as it’s taught to them throughout childhood. I’m sure that I would not have grasped the significance of the Bhagavad Gita had I attempted to read it as a child, but a simplified overview of the story and a few key themes would have offered a useful framework to my developing consciousness.
As a brief overview, the story takes place on a battlefield before the start of the Kurukshetra War and consists of conversations between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, the supreme manifestation of the Lord Himself. The war is between two groups of closely related cousin families who are fighting for control of the kingdom. The protagonist, Arjuna, is hesitating before waging battle against his own cousins and uncles. Arjuna faces two right-vs.-right decisions:
- Should he carry out his individual duty and avoid bloodshed against his own friends and family?
- Or should he carry out his sacred duty as a warrior and fight for his just cause?
A Western reader might expect God (in this case, Lord Krishna disguised as the charioteer) to convince Arjuna not to kill his own family. Krishna, however, offers different advice and describes the path that each of us can follow by living in harmony with universal laws and order as we seek to live our highest truths. Krishna begins the discussion by reminding Arjuna that the eternal self never perishes. All of us occupy a physical vessel or body, which is temporary, but the essence of our being (our soul) is eternal.
For the soul, there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.
The concept of reincarnation is beyond the scope of this book, but we can understand how this concept of an everlasting nature of being may provide liberation in our current life. One of the challenges we face in Western society is the constant perception of the finite nature of life, the fixed amount of time that we all have as we rush to accumulate things in order to be happy. If our eternal self or soul continues on after we die, whether it’s through our children, our service and impact to others, or as part of the universe or nature, we lose the sense of urgency to hurry up and live quickly before time runs out. As Krishna states, this belief in our eternal soul provides freedom for us to act in accordance with our sacred duty.
So how to apply the lessons from the Bhagavad Gita to our search for the Good Life? Let’s explore three key concepts from the text.
Concept #1: Find Your Higher Purpose
The word “dharma” is one of my favorites, and comes from the Sanskrit dhri, which means to hold, support, or bear. The word has many meanings, but “sacred duty” or “highest purpose” is a very useful everyday translation. On a larger scale, the scholar Eknath Easwaran defines dharma as “the essential order of things, an integrity and harmony in the universe and the affairs of life that cannot be disturbed without courting chaos. Thus it means rightness, justice, goodness, purpose rather than chance.” In the text, Krishna reminds Arjuna that, as a warrior prince and soldier, his dharma is to fight for justice and protect the kingdom. Arjuna’s place in the universe is dependent upon his ability to carry out this duty. Krishna goes on to state that everyone will die or be born, but to relinquish your sacred duty is a fate worse than death for the honorable man. Lord Krishna concludes this brief reference to dharma as one’s personal duty by saying, “Now if you do not execute this battle, then, having given up your personal dharma and reputation, you shall incur sin.”
We can apply this concept of individual purpose or sacred duty to our own lives. We all have a need to find our reason for being alive. Abraham Maslow states, “Your life’s work is to find your life’s work.” What is your dharma? Are you living your own dharma or following someone else’s path? Krishna has some advice for us:
It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma. But competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.
It’s important to note that your dharma can and should change over the course of your life. For example, my dharma has ranged from a high school and college student to a karate instructor, radiology resident/fellow, attending radiologist, husband, father, and student/author.
As a student in high school and college, I focused on working to maintain good grades while trying to discover my path in life. I then found my way to martial arts almost by accident and became obsessed with training and competing while rising to an instructor level. In medical school, I was immersed in obtaining the knowledge required to graduate and enter the competitive field of radiology. As I began my career as an attending radiologist, my interest shifted from the subject of radiology to the business of radiology. I began to study the nonclinical aspects of medicine, including financial analytics, hospital/physician contracts, and physician performance management. Today, I’m involved with developing a new model of optimal wellness that integrates key principles of medicine, psychology, neuroscience, and leadership. This is all just to illustrate that my dharma has taken many forms and functions, and each has been as important as the others.
It took several years of study for me to fully understand what my true dharma is. My highest purpose in life has nothing to do with radiology or money or other external indicators of success. My dharma is to create a close-knit family unit filled with love, optimism, gratitude, resilience, purpose, and service. In other words, my reason for living is to achieve a state of eudaimonia for all of us.
Stephen Cope states in The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling:
Dharma is a response to the urgent — though often hidden — need of the moment. Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. It tears at our hearts. Others don’t see it or don’t care. But we feel it. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.
Concept #2: Do It Fully
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
— Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
It’s not enough to find our own dharma or highest purpose for living; we must carry out our dharma to the best of our abilities. Whether your dharma is that of a parent, a physician, or a janitor, you must carry out your work with complete effort and deliberate practice.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the importance of deliberate practice. He argues that success is less about individual genius and more related to circumstances that provide opportunity for an enormous amount of effort. He applies a 10,000-hour rule to the Beatles, who performed live in Hamburg, Germany, 1,200 times over a four-year period. It was during this intensive period of work that the group developed their talents and found their unique sound.
Gladwell also describes Bill Gates fulfilling the 10,000-hour rule by having access to a high school computer at the age of thirteen and spending 10,000 hours programming on it. The deliberate practice on a specific task for twenty hours per week for ten years is the key to success in any field — but only if this practice is coupled with the desire to improve. It’s not enough to simply put in the time without the goal of mastery or, at the very least, improvement.
Are you fully engaging in deliberate practice? If your dharma is as a teacher, are you engaging in deliberate practice with a desire for constant improvement, or are you simply counting the days until summer vacation? If your dharma is as a physician, are you spending deliberate effort in trying to be the best physician that you can be for the sake of your patients and community, or are you burned out and on autopilot for the money? If your dharma is as a parent, are you learning and practicing evidence-based strategies to raise honest, responsible, resilient, and compassionate kids, or are you simply rushing them from one activity to another to avoid feeling left behind from what others are doing?
Time is too precious and life too fleeting to engage in activities to which we are not fully committed. Spend some time thinking about your dharma or sacred duty at this point in your life. Once you discover this highest purpose, focus on it. Live it. Breathe it. Do it fully!
Concept #3: Let Go Of The Results
The third concept that Krishna teaches Arjuna is to let go of the results of his actions and turn it over to the higher power. Once you have identified your dharma (in Arjuna’s case, as a warrior soldier) and performed your dharma fully (fight to the best of your abilities), you must then let go of the fruits of your labor.
You should never engage in action for sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself — without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.
This concept of detachment from results of our actions is a common theme among the stoic philosophers and has had a powerful effect on my own approach to life. I found that the more I pursued activities simply for the process of completing something important, the more successful I became in achieving favorable outcomes. For example, instead of focusing on gaining more hospital contracts (very important for a venture-backed company) or garnering more respect in the radiology community (important for the ego), I shifted my focus toward creating an exceptionally innovative and radiology-friendly group. This practice environment allowed me and my colleagues to develop a new breed of radiologists who were service-oriented, hardworking team players instead of entitled lone wolves. This shift in my attention to the process of creating what I believe is needed, rather than on external results often beyond my control, provided liberation and increased enjoyment in my day-to-day work.
Figure out what you were put on this earth to do, put all of your efforts into doing it, and let go of the results. When implemented correctly, these three steps have the power to change many lives. The steps are often very simple and profound, but difficult to put into practice. It takes time and effort to discover one’s dharma. True, it’s much easier to float through life on a reactive path, reliant on chance and the influence of others. Deliberate practice and carrying out one’s duties to the best of your ability requires discipline and perseverance. However, it yields the most effective and consistent results. It’s what allows us to fulfill our dharma and move toward the Good Life.
For more on living an optimal life, check out Positive Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Wisdom to Create a Flourishing Life by Sanj Katyal.