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Hacking Happiness

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as I always say, the aim of this podcast is to bring you a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. Now hold that thought. We’re going to be talking about happiness today. We’re here to explore scientific and psychological insights as well as develop certain personal practices that will help us hack happiness. So to throw light on this, we have a behavior analyst and founder of the Mental Fitness Gym Aspire, Perform, Transform or APT. Her name is Aditi Surana. Aditi will walk us through strategies that individuals and corporates can use to enhance happiness. Welcome to the chat Aditi, and thank you for being here with us today.

Aditi Surana: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

AB: Aditi, let me start with you explaining what your Mental Fitness Gym app actually is. And can you tell us if it’s a gym? There’s obviously exercises involved and what sort of exercises are there?

AS: Okay, so during the pandemic, I, for the first time, started my social initiative to help people deal with anxiety. I work as a high performance coach, so I know the mindset that one can cultivate to be a high performer is very, very important. But when we started working with people when they were feeling anxious and helpless, we realised people do not have what is required to build a mindset, which is healthy mental fitness. And that’s a thought that gave me the idea to start India’s only mental fitness gym. And as you rightly said, the gym is all about creating workouts, having one thought, and building emotional stability. So, for example, we all fight with people we love and people we are in relationships with, but we don’t know how to fight with people we love. So at the Mental Fitness Gym, we decided to take an entire month to figure out why we take things personally, why we fight, why we bring in all the past, and what one can do about it. But when you have discussed this in a group or you have a toolbox, you have the muscle already built, and you’re not as angry and as vindictive in fights as you otherwise can be because, you know, all of this is happening for a certain reason. One month we only spoke about emotional baggage that we carry around all the time, but we don’t know how to process it or how to make it slightly lighter. So in this way,  every month, we pick up a new topic and break it down for people to experience the technical and scientific ways in which they can deal with the problems that they’re facing. 

AB: So I want to ask you to explain to me what does it actually mean to hack happiness? And what does happiness mean to you? Because it means different things to different people. And actually, can you really hack happiness?

AS: Because I knew I was preparing for today’s session. I thought a lot about it, and I have spoken about this multiple times, but I genuinely feel happiness is overrated as an idea. We all think that happiness is about the result or is something that you experience as a result of something that you achieve. So if you do not achieve that perfect marriage, that perfect body image, or that perfect idea, then you can’t be happy. And my personal and professional belief on this is that if we start understanding that playing a game is by itself winning, then your definition of happiness changes from the result to the process. And if you can, and today we’ll talk about it how you can, but the very moment you understand that your engagement with your process will define your happiness with it, whether it goes ahead, whether it really culminates in what you have imagined or what you think it should be, or not, you can still find your scorecard of happiness in that entire journey.

AB: You know, Aditi, you’ve told us so much in that one little sentence, and you’ve taken such a spiritual approach to this. It’s just this. But that’s so hard. What you’re saying is that it’s so hard to enjoy the journey and not just focus on the end result. But before we get to that, I want to ask you something else. So how do you track it, how will you measure it, and how will you see that it’s growing both from an individual point of view as well as from the point of view of corporations when people are trying to look at their teams? Because what happens is that very often you give out a survey, and people are worried. It’s not anonymous; people will find out who said what.

AS: So people feel happy when they belong, people feel happy when they have a connection with what they do. They feel happy when they have involvement in things that they opt for. Now, these are things that can be created only by creating an environment to achieve or create them. Most of the time, people forget. And [this is] something I love working with teams for, because when multiple people come together to be able to negotiate, a common connecting point is the toughest goal or toughest problem to solve. But the very moment you know what that common problem is, you realise that even if the process is tougher, people bond. All the markers that we have of behaviour, happiness, and engagement in organisations and individual areas are defined by what people think about us, not what we genuinely experience. I am going to use an analogy, my favourite story: Imagine that you and I meet for a cup of coffee, and we see a man running. We don’t know why he is running, but we think about three possibilities for why he is running. I think there is probably a kite in the sky that he wants to catch. You say probably not. Probably there is a dog behind him, and that’s why he’s running. And while we are talking, the server who is standing next to us says, “No, he’s a regular customer. He’s running because he’s preparing for a marathon that may happen in two months.” Now, in all three possibilities, the action is the same: running from point A to point B. So we gauge people’s happiness from that point A to point B journey and say, “Oh, did you run enough?” But if you look at it, the motive behind the action defines the experience of the action. And that is the problem. Because our markers are wrong. We think nobody can be happy running from one point to the next. Because our reference is the dog, our reference is the kite. But if you really look at it, if somebody wants to run, they want to prepare for that, and they may enjoy it. So you’ve got to understand that personal context.

AB: So do you think we need to come up with a new way of tracking it? A new way of tracking happiness? You think we don’t have the markers currently to track it?

AS: I think the markers are externally oriented, and they have to be internally oriented. And the very moment you do that, they become so subjective— that people can’t compare one person’s happiness to another’s that doesn’t serve the purpose of a survey. And that’s something, in an organisation that I was working with, we redefined and said, “Can we relook at it every three months?” So it can’t be that one idea: that I think is happiness or this is productivity. We re-look at it after three months and after six months.

AB: That sounds wonderful. Actually, I was reading somewhere that there is something called a ‘happy gene,’ and some people have it and some people don’t. And the people who have it, find it easier to find happiness in spite of their circumstances, while those who don’t have it, even little things, can throw them off balance.

AS: I absolutely disagree with this. You might have those genes, but there’s something about neuroplasticity that I’m in love with: whether you have those genes or not, or whether you are wired to do something or not, you can always train your mind and your neuropathways to create newer belief systems. And that is the boon that we have as human beings. So whether you have the gene or not, don’t worry about it.

AB: How do we apply this process? Can you give it to us in a: do A, do B, or do C like format, so that we can change our key behavior, so we feel happier?

AS: Okay, so this comes as an implementation of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept called ‘flow.’ He says this is like saying that the optimum happiness levels that people showed in the world were based on the state of flow that they stepped into. He spoke to artists, musicians, and athletes, and he found out that they hit a space where they felt extremely happy. No matter what is happening, they are in that state of flow, no matter how tough things are. And we can use that model, which I generally do, to create your so-called formula to be happy, especially in challenging situations, especially by inviting challenges. So I believe that growth happens when you are in a grind. It cannot happen when you are sitting comfortably and not challenging yourself. And growth is the easiest way for you to find your happiness hormone again. When we are growing, when we are learning, when we are challenging, and when we are unlearning, our previous belief system is where the growth happens. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he says that the flow state is where the challenge level and skill levels are at their maximum levels, which means you’re doing a task where the task demands that your skill be challenged over and over again. 

So let’s break it down into steps. What can you do? Pick one activity that you feel you are fairly good at. It’s not something that’s extremely complicated for you. It could be cooking, writing, or anything. And I would recommend that you start with something that is not professional. First, master the ability to get into the state of flow over and over again, and then apply it to any professional skill set. So, for example, you pick up cooking. Now you pick that activity and say, “You know what, this recipe I can’t hack because it’s beyond my ability. I’ve never cooked this, and I don’t know how to do it. So I’m going to pick this up, and I don’t have the skill set for it. So I’m going to build the skill set.” And until you build that skill set for that one recipe, you continue to practise that one thing over and over again. And while you do that, you become involved with that activity. You become intense, you surrender to the process, and you observe deeply. Now, anytime you start observing any process physically, with all five senses involved, the whole game changes.

AB: So, I just want to ask you what happens if someone says I’m not creative at all? Like you’re saying, pick up any activity you’re good at, right? But sometimes people say, “oh, I’m not good at anything. I can’t sing, I can’t paint, I can’t cook.”

AS: What could be the case? I do line art. And just to draw lines that are very close and parallel to one another, you require a tremendous amount of attention. It is a challenge because the lines are very, very close, it requires involvement, and it requires a skill set that most of us do not have. So you have to practise; you’ve got to start doing things you haven’t done. A task can be anything, but if you are involved enough, you can start engaging with it. The best example is that, I have friends who didn’t like kids per se or pets at all until they had their own kids or pets. And suddenly every small thing that the child did was so important, and that brought so much happiness, because the involvement, the attachment, and the surrender to the process were much higher. Okay, for example, if you want to buy something that really matters to you and you go from one shop to the other, one website to the other, when you really find it and you know something that you’re looking for, we get much happier. Not because you bought a thing, you keep buying things every now and then, but because of that one thing that you were so involved with and really wanted, and that happened. Now we think that life should throw these experiences at us, and if it does not, then we just wait for that moment to come. And then, when it would come, ‘I would be happy,’ is what you keep telling yourself. If you know that my job is to create the state by creating different activities and environments like that, then you are more in charge. We feel happy when we are in control of things. We feel unhappy or anxious when we feel out of control.

AB: You said we’re happy when we’re in charge of things. I want to ask you something. We’re living in a world where there’s so much change. Tell me, how can we be in control of a situation like this? We have to have a change.

AS: I agree. The very moment we understand where I have control and where I can choose my involvement, we change the game. We might be in conversations that we don’t want to be in, but we have to be in them. And most of the time, that causes unhappiness for people. And this is where you create a game of involvement. I’m a behavioural analyst, and for me, social conversations that are not really meaningful are tough to be in. Now, my game is to observe people’s micro-expressions. When I have a game to look at their micro-expressions and see what they’re saying beyond what they’re saying, no matter how long the conversation or the party goes, my game of happiness is about being involved in it. Now, we don’t think we have control over life or life situations, but we have a lot more control. As kids, we did that naturally, isn’t it? Mom kept us wherever we had to be, and we found a little game. We looked at the ants or at that little toy that we had, and we engaged with it. That same possibility is not there [anymore]. Not because of things, but because of our mindset; the moment we start realising we can’t control the inevitable. But whatever we can control, we can still play the games that we would like to be engaged in, involved in and having fun with. I think all of us did that during the pandemic where we accepted, maybe after 45 days, that we couldn’t go out, and then we just evaluated wherever we were. And in that given situation, with all the constraints, people have reported that they were most disciplined. They found their rhythm, they built the body, and they cultivated the craft. Why? Technically, when you’re constrained like this and feel so much out of control, you should feel miserable.

AB: But I wanted to ask you, what do you think, with your experience, are some of the common obstacles in achieving personal happiness?

AS: In the last 60 or 70 years since industrialization has happened? In capitalization, for that matter, we are bombarded with imagery that defines happiness as certain kinds of possessions. And if we don’t possess that car, that product, or that brand, then happiness won’t be achieved; which is what all the micro messaging is doing. So imagine your subconscious idea. What happiness looks like is defined by what you see on the hoarding or the ads everywhere possible. And the best minds in the world are fighting for your mental space. So we live in a society that is working very, very hard to convince you that without their product, their mechanism, and their machinery, you can’t be happy. So fighting that programme is extremely difficult. So it is not completely your fault that you don’t feel happy because you live in an environment that constantly tells you [that]: you’re not enough, you’re not good enough, and you’re not beautiful enough. And when I started the mental fitness gym, I had only one goal in mind: to contribute to making India mentally fit. And I feel that very strongly because we are encouraged every single day to buy into ideas that make us more and more unhappy. We are told that ideal happiness happens after retirement. When you have that house, when you have that car, when you have everything which translates into not living life for many, many years. And eventually, one fine day, when you reach a level where your physical strength and mental capacities are gone, you might find happiness. Today, Gen Z is questioning that idea, and I love them for it because they’re like, “I don’t want to go through this imbalanced life and then discover I may or may not be happy.” So it looks revolutionary, but it’s only valid for us to understand that: what if we just pause and say, “Okay, wait, what is my idea, my definition of happiness?” 

AB: So while we’re talking about external factors, Aditi, you said very rightly that there are all these ideas. So the environment is one big external factor. Then there are relationships, right? I mean, from the time mankind appeared, we’ve been looking for partners. Then there’s this concept of job satisfaction, probably because, like you said, the whole industrial revolution, capitalism, has made job satisfaction a big deal right now. What is the impact that all these have on personal happiness? Because when you read about happiness, whether it’s a spiritual book, or any books on happiness, it talks about happiness coming from the inside. But I’d be lying if I said that external factors don’t make the difference if you’re to lose a loved one, or a job. But when people are not happy, their work suffers, and their personal lives suffer. So it becomes a cycle.

AS: This is where I began the conversation by saying: happiness is overrated. Because people feel they can work at optimum productivity levels or higher performance levels when they’re happy. We all know that in order to build a skill set, required to be the master that we appreciate, in any master you take, you have to go through a certain level of suffering. And suffering is not necessarily a bad idea. We are told that it’s a bad idea. But this grind is where the growth is. So sometimes, the very moment you accept that: in order to build what I want to build, I will have some degree of suffering, your pain about the suffering reduces. For example, when you do a physical workout, you know we all have sore muscles and we can’t sit. But when your trainer tells you that in order to create the results that you want, you will go through this kind of pain and suffering, you become more tolerant of it. Similarly, in relationships, the very moment you accept that it’s going to be complex and have beautiful moments, you won’t think it’s the end of the world. Or if you look at your career and say no, it’s going to be stressful. But instead of fighting the idea that I shouldn’t be stressed, what if I built my stress appetite? Stress appetite is a concept I introduced, and wrote about in 2021 because I believe that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. When you build the appetite for it slowly and steadily, you train yourself to deal with more and more stress. And then the same degree of stress that was devastating for you— after training enough becomes manageable. 

AB: I see. So can we give people something to follow which will make them happy?

AS: So first of all, physical exercise is a really important part of any fitness regime. I have never met a person who’s intellectually and professionally very happy without having any physical workout element to it. And that’s because we all know a lot about this. The chemicals that the body releases and the kind of hormonal journey and all of that endorphin… And not only that, but for our muscles to be active, for our minds to know that we have the capacity to run, this is an essential aspect of it that is highly recommended. The second thing I feel you must have as part of your regime is journaling. We do not know what to do with our disturbed emotions, and we carry them because we don’t have any place to keep them. It’s so intangible for your emotions to be in control. And all of us, no matter how happy you are or how Zen you are, the very moment you involve and engage with the world, you will have emotions that are uncontrolled, emotions that are triggering, and that are unpleasant. If, as a practice, you have a space to dump all these emotions somewhere, then it is like a space that you build. So I use a technique called dump journaling, where I literally write on a timer. I ask people to do this three times. So you require only twelve minutes, and that could be a good tool for our listeners to try. Set a timer for twelve minutes and ask yourself, “What is overwhelming me right now?” Set a timer for three minutes and write whatever comes to mind. Don’t stop. If you want to abuse, or say things, it’s okay. It’s only you and your diary, or your pages. Say it all. Don’t be politically correct. Do not edit it. After that, set a timer for just 1 minute and observe your breath. Don’t do anything but observe your breath. One more time: Three minute cycle of writing, one-minute cycle of observing the breath. One more time: Three-minute cycle of writing and one minute cycle of observing your breath. And keep asking the same question: “What is overwhelming me right now?” People have spoken about the really annoying triggers, and after the second attempt, they’re like, I don’t feel like writing anything. And some people wrote three times, and they still had so much more to say. The next day, they wrote again and again. So depending on how deep your wound is, the emotional triggers will create that reaction. But it’s okay to have those reactions. In the society that we live in, you’re not allowed to react honestly, but we have to have some space to react honestly so that we can be genuinely happy. The next thing is that we have to have some routine to add calmness to our day, okay? Some people do that by listening to music. Some people do that by walking barefoot in the park. Some people do that with a handwriting stroke that I teach called the ‘Calmsutra.’ It’s a calming stroke formation that I have created, and it works a lot. Some people do that by doodling. Some people do that by whatever means, right? But you have to have a small calmness in your routine. And we didn’t require it probably 40 years ago because life was calmer in comparison to where we are now. But Bruce Lee says “Calmness is a superpower.” If you can just have that calmness break for yourself in the middle of a busy day, it allows your mind to know that it can have a breather. Lastly, a really important one is to observe your sleep. People think that their insomnia is about this or that. I have spoken about this, and I really believe that: your sleep is a representation of whatever is happening during the day. So if your sleep is not deep enough, your body is telling you to change something about your day, your career, your life, and your relationships. And people just sometimes choose to pop pills or they ignore this. They stay awake, they say, “No, I have this problem.” They start living with it, but they don’t make changes in the way they live their lives.

AB: So you said physical fitness; journaling for emotional fitness; then you said calmness and observe your sleep— four things. Now, we did a podcast with Shreans Daga on ‘gratitude,’ and I want to ask you something that I asked him. In life, sometimes there’s one trouble after another. And some people just go through a stage where they lose loved ones, they lose their jobs, and they’re going through a major health crisis. The situation is such that it’s very difficult to be grateful or happy, because gratitude is a big step towards happiness as well. In that kind of situation, would you say, “It’s okay to say, okay, I will be happy at some stage? It’s okay to grieve today, and it’s okay to suffer today.”

AS: Just give yourself some time, and don’t expect yourself to run tomorrow. Just walk. Just engage with one person, and when you feel better, engage with a few more. But take it easy on yourself. I went through a divorce and lost my father in the same period of six months, and it was extremely tough. And in spite of being a coach and knowing all these tools, I had a phase where I collapsed. And I remember my friends who were like… And when my teachers came, they were like, “It’s absolutely fine to have that collapse, to have this phase. You don’t have to be a coach. You don’t have to prove that you can figure this out.” And we don’t realise it when we set those expectations for ourselves. And that only makes it very difficult. So don’t be harsh with this.

AB: Okay? Thank you for that. Aditi, there’s something else I want to ask you about. Now, let’s talk about another very important external stimulus, and that is people. People are always around you all the time, right? But we can’t really choose a family. And you hear this a lot from people that we can’t choose our family. So what happens when there is someone in the family who’s constantly triggering you? How would you recommend we handle a situation like that and get over and above it to still be happy?

AS: So I believe in not only that one family member, that one boss, that one colleague, but in anything that triggers us. Anything. Okay? This is something many people might not like me saying it, but hear the whole point. If anything is triggering you, there is a victim story that you’re carrying around it. In Bollywood, there is a song called ‘Aata Majhi Satakli,’ which is from this movie— Singham, and I use that song about all the emotional triggers people have. It’s ‘Aata Majhi Satakli.’ Wherever you have that moment where you think you are triggered by people, that is an area for you to know. This is as far as your mental fitness can go. This is as far as your calmness can go. Not only this one person, but tomorrow anybody can talk about your body or your weight, and you’ll have the same reaction. And it so happens— I don’t know how—but if you have a trigger, you’ll always find more than one person to press that button. Because somehow, until you switch off the button and completely deactivate it, people will keep pressing it. So your triggers are actually the map that shows all the areas that you need to work on.

AB:  Wonderful. Thank you, Aditi. Now, we’re going to do a quick rapid fire round to summarise our chat. So one major obstacle that keeps us from experiencing the happiness we deserve? 

AS: Entitlement

AB: Okay. One practice that will help hack happiness and how often should one do it?

AS: Five, four, three to one tool, where you actually involve all five senses. And take a moment, like literally five minutes to see five things, that you can see, observe. So go one sense at a time and really ground yourself.

AB: A powerful way to remind us at tough times that happiness is within reach?

AS: A song, a person or a thing that you’re extremely grateful for or you can engage with. So create a library of things that you can fall on before the actual tough time comes. So do it every day.

AB:  Thank you. Thank you so much. Aditi, I think we’re going to help a lot of people with this chat. I’m very excited for it to go out to our listeners.

AS: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’ve never spoken about happiness as a focused topic ever before. So this was really interesting.

AB: Thank you for being here. And to my listeners, I hope you learned something new and I hope we brought you a little bit closer to being happier in your life. If you enjoyed this, please press like and invite your friends and family to share the podcast. And also, I would love to hear from you. So any questions you have, any suggestions on topics or just any comments, please send me an email at: Thank you for being here and thank you for wanting to get healthier.