We live in the age of betterment. As adjectives go, this means living in or aspiring to the comparative state—faster, thinner, stronger, more disciplined, just better. We want to get better at managing people; have more control over our finances; learn to manage stress better; have better work-life balance; and the mother of all betterments: be more productive. “Everyday, in every way, I am getting better and better,” as the guru of self-affirmations, French psychologist, Emile Coue said.
Self-improvement is a multimillion-dollar industry, including apps, books, TV shows and products dedicated to helping us lead better lives. We may roll our eyes, but we still read the blog post, listen to the podcast or buy the book because it plays to the human instinct to improve. Status quo is uncomfortable to our species.
Stumbling towards happiness, gaining a growth mindset, learning to be zen, and leading fulfilled lives are the aspirations of our time. This relentless desire to become better at everything percolates our milieu in ways that are unimaginable to our parents. Blame it on capitalism. Betterment is the product of a prosperous society that has not seen a war in its lifetime. It is an old pursuit but its modern avatar is helped by a range of tools.
Most ancient cultures considered self-cultivation to be the noblest of all goals. In today’s world, self-cultivation is less about peeling off the layers of ego and hubris and more about setting the timer for 10 minutes of programmed meditation. Betterment requires a desire to get ahead in life. If you prefer homeostasis, why bother?
“What is a hack?” I asked my daughter, the computer engineer.
“LOL, why?” came the text.
“Well, we all keep saying ‘life hacks’ and I know that it means ways of getting better, but what does hack in the computer sense mean,” I asked.
“Hacking means getting access to information that is secure. Why are you awake at 3 a.m.?” she asked.
“I have to manage my sleep cycles. Arianna Huffington says so. She has written a whole book on how to sleep better.”
Better, better, better. You see where I am going?
When I pitched the idea for this column to Mint’s editor, I had what I thought was a simple and pithy title. “Dear Sukumar,” I wrote. “I want to write a series of essays on awesomeness. On optimal living. Let us call it ‘365 ways to optimize yourself: how to get fit without exercising; improve your memory and well-being; stay smart and attractive; and become completely awesome in the process: a modest approach’.”
“That’s the title?” came the reply. “That won’t fit in the headline. Why not call it ‘The Better Life’? It’s a nice segue from your ‘Good Life’ column.”
I loved the title. And so it came to be: these words that you are reading.
I was born to write this column. I am a constant optimizer. I love productivity apps and self-help books. I subscribe to and read countless blogs that fall under the genre of life hacks. I multitask my way to incremental improvements. I listen to podcasts while walking on the treadmill and meditate while stuck in traffic. I have a unique obsession though. I am into shortcuts—and that is what will differentiate this column from others. Minimum input, maximum output—and I don’t mean in the alimentary sense.
Buddha got his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. I awakened to my peculiar proclivity for shortcuts, appropriately enough in the gym. Gyms give me an inferiority complex. I try to psych myself up before I go to them. I wear colourful tight leotards that have tiger prints on them. I try to imitate a cheetah’s haughty, mincing walk. I wear sneakers that add an inch to my height and make me jump without trying. I carry a respectably large gym bag filled with the dregs of my life just to look like a serious gymmer. I wear headbands, make-up and false eyelashes that together make me look exhausted, like I have been working out for five hours. It never works. I walk in, see all those sweating bodies and feel the bile rise. I needed a different approach to get fit, I decided—a practical, realistic, sensible one.
I have three immediate goals. The first is to lose weight and get fit without exercising. The second is to slow down my mind without necessarily meditating, and the third is to discover fun products and apps that will help me with endeavours one and two.
You could call me lazy, but mine is a unique kind of laziness. It has an Indian inventiveness and urgency to it.
This column is a way to pin down (or pen down) a method to my madness.
Every Friday, I will write about things that I have been doing all my life. Simple things like stretching while waiting for the coffee to brew. Some, a bit more complex with some grounding in psychology and science. But all of them are easily do-able.
You can’t be bothered with all this self-help s#*t?
Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to “The Better Life”.
As this column went to print, Shoba Narayan was jogging, walking and eating her way through the obstacle course of crowds thronging Bengaluru for Ganapati Visarjan, St Mary’s Feast and pre-Bakrid festivities. Amazing India!