Nine Steps To Happiness

Step 1 : Take Off That Mask!

Of the years that I spent in law school, I learnt more from the things I did not end up doing rather than the one I actually did.[1] Perhaps because when I did things, I was being true to them, true to myself, outcome notwithstanding. But when I backed out of any endeavor, it was mostly because I was trying to fit into the perspective of someone else, of what they thought of me or how they wanted me to be. It was this external perspective and consequent fear of failure that governed my ultimate decision.

A disaster? You bet.

For people on the other end of this spectrum, vice versa is equally true. These are the people who DO things to fit into the perspective of others. We have a fairly recognized term for this phenomena — peer pressure.

Each of us has a desperate, inbuilt desire to fit in. Whether visible or not, all of us are looking for approval. Constantly! It is simply a manifestation of our primitive survival instinct.

Seeking approval, appreciation and the like is hardly problematic. In fact, a complete absence of this feeling at every level may signal a grave abnormality.

But what is problematic is when this desire for approval morphs into obsession, governing our every instinct, our every action. What makes this particular obsession even more troublesome is the subtlety with which it extends control over our lives. And before we know it, we are transformed — in most cases, for the worse.

Peer pressure is a fairly limited term to encompass this obsession because in general understanding the term peer pressure extends only to our colleagues and friends. The obsession, on the other hand, is way more universal.

If you are already benignly shaking your head in with a sense of proud detachment, here is the breaking news — each one of us houses the obsession, some are just better at channeling it.

Look at yourself closely for a day. Look at the avatars you don to please everyone in your life. Look at the roles you are expected to play with perfection, every single day. A good friend, a great spouse, an ideal parent, a model employee — the list is endless.

The literary messiah of all human wisdom[2] — Shakespeare had figured this long back. “Life is a stage”, he had famously stated. He just skipped stating that life does not have the luxury of the green room. Or maybe it did in 16th Century. 21st Century has swallowed a huge part of good old times, or so asserts the popular belief.

Shakespearean times aside, the fact remains that most of us are flipping multiple masks on hourly basis to please the ones who matter, professionally or personally; emotionally or practically. The worst part are not the masks; it is the fact that as we continually switch these masks, most of us are slowly but surely losing the luxury of our green-rooms — the luxury of being our own selves, even momentarily.

Life for most of us, is no more a play divided into Acts, as our dear old Bard would have liked to believe. It is one continuous, endless play. Changes happen on stage — minute, subtle yet momentous.

Is this our fault? Is it wrong?

No and no. This is the demand of the changing times. Fitting in various roles to do justice to your responsibilities is hardly a feat that can be belittled.

It is a splendid achievement to balance various roles of our lives. But, to extend the analogy of the play — any stage act is successful if there are breaks in between and actors have time to breathe, be themselves, before they slip into the next round of emotions.

In short, the luxury of the green room.

It is precisely this luxury that we are being denied or more accurately denying ourselves. We are so busy flipping our masks, that we are slowly losing the sense of our real identities — the sense of who we actually are. We are fundamentally altering ourselves, mostly without even realizing and in the process, gradually losing our individuality.

This loss has several effects and side-effects. All of us know the good parts, don’t we? It is this knowledge which goads us into the loss. But in focusing on the material gains, we forget the damages that silently rake the other planes of our existence.

A powerful manifestation of this damage is seen in what are often listed as direct consequences of peer-pressure — unsavory situations and habits — substance abuse, addictions, misconduct and even crimes.

This is the extreme end of the impact spectrum, the end which we are forced to recognize and create hue and cry about. But what is more worrisome is the end which is largely ignored or conveniently overlooked.[3] This is the end where you find the trending stuff — stress, anxiety, low self esteem snowballing into frustration, depression, problematic relationship and in extreme cases, physical and mental abuse.

The destruction, as you must have guessed is humongous and I would probably need to write to a book, recounting this scare-fest. To cut a long story short, it is self-destruct carpet bomb, right in the middle of your living room. And if it has not already exploded (a fact only you can realize, confirm or deny), you are lucky.

Exploded or not, there is a lot of mess to clean up. The starting point is a conscious self-discovery. And don’t worry, even though I know it helps big-time, I am not recommending a meditative yoga routine.[4] My solution is more fundamental — a conscious realization of the NEED to rediscover yourself. Once the need is settled, the strategies find their way in. This realization is also crucial to get one started on what, as I mentioned in a footnote below, is a daunting task. If you know how important it is for your life and happiness, you will be ready to go all the way.

Once the realization settles in, you can and will strive hard to find your own personal ‘green room’. It may be an activity or a habit (reading, gardening, deep sea diving[5]) that you love, that allows you to take a break and for those limited number of hours, allows you to be yourself with reckless abandon.

It may be a person or persons (e.g old friends, siblings…if you are exceptionally lucky, your spouse) with whom you can pour yourself out and in the process, rediscover your old, real self.

Or it may be something as simple as a promise made to yourself that for X number of hours every week/month , between Y and Z points of time, I will be myself, saying things I want to say, doing stuff the way I deem fit, without concerning myself with anyone’s opinion and so on.[6]

As the contemporary jargon would have it, it is essentially a ‘me’ time that you need to set aside but not just to unwind but to make a very conscious effort to find and re-establish your original self. Remember, you are setting this time aside to rediscover yourself and not to lose the remains of it followed by a nasty hangover and stuff that may not be worth mentioning in this space!

[1] A comparative analysis would be an instructive account of my sloth. But that’s NOT the point this article is trying to make!

[2] You will be surprised by the amount of philosophical and spiritual insight I picked up while cramming Julius Caesar for examinations. Jury is still out on whether it really did me any good — in exams or otherwise. But at least, I picked up incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo for the dinner table discussion, and of course, this article!

[3] I am still trying to figure which — I sometimes think that this is a result of taking ‘ignorance is bliss’ too much to heart. Besides, by the time any degree of realization sets in, one has lost too much of oneself and starting the recovery seems a daunting task, best glossed over and forgotten.

[4] I have come to realize that self-discovery strategies are like personal love stories — your dream romance may be my sickening nightmare. But so long as it works for you, (and you don’t insist on narrating the intimate details to me), it is perfect.

[5] How expensive your ‘Green Room’ in uncomfortably large number of cases may depend on the depth of your pockets and of course your allegiance to the Bollywood extravanganzas! Not entirely an ‘awakened’ idea but I state the facts. However, to stay true to the spirit of this article, the ‘expensive’ tag or the lack of it, really doesn’t matter (to you at least, I can’t say about the others) as long as it helps you meet yourself, the basic idea behind any Green Room.

[6] This of course comes with the essential corollary that you shall exercise reasonable discretion and common sense. Unless you are a naked Sadhu…or intend to be!

For instance, insisting on being completely yourself during a Board Meeting, if it essentially involves your whimsical fantasies, may severely backfire. The fact is, no amount of “awakening”, in any sense will do you good if not accompanied by a fair degree of common sense. A warning you must pay heed to or you may find yourself packed out of the office at best and to the Himalayas at worst!

Stay tuned for Step 2. Meanwhile, help spread the happiness around and click the ❤ icon below. Also, don’t forget to share your thoughts and opinions in the comment box. Lets have the conversation going!