The age of betterment: Short cuts to health and happiness

People do many things to better themselves. They take up a sport, learn languages, do yoga, meditate and practise gratitude

The writer in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo: Arpita Dutta

The writer in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo: Arpita Dutta


What do the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Dale Carnegie and Dan Ariely have in common—besides the letter D? They all teach you how to live better. If freedom was the mantra of India before its inception as a nation, dignity, its drumbeat at incipience, prosperity, its goal during our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, then betterment is the hallmark of our times.

We live in an age of betterment. Blame it on the fact that this generation has lived through an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity, which, fingers crossed, will not change even as our world fragments into “narrow domestic walls”, thanks to nationalism, populism, parochialism, terrorism, xenophobia, call it what you will. In daily life, our goals are modest: We all want to be stronger, fitter, faster, thinner—comparative verbs all that reflect the comparison-seeking, self-documenting, selfie world that we live in.

That said, self-cultivation is an ancient pursuit, obsessed upon and perfected by old cultures: Greece, Rome, China, India. The first self-help books go back to the third century. Sanskrit has its Brahmana and Smriti literature, not to mention the Bhagavad Gita, teaching citizens how to lead good lives. Latin has Cicero, Virgin, Ovid, St Augustine of Hippo, Descartes and Spinoza, all of whom philosophized about virtue and betterment. Chinese has its Tao Te Ching, a masterwork on life and living. Today, self-cultivation is less about removing layers of ego and hubris and more about setting the timer for 10 minutes of programmed meditation, the kind we see in the television drama Billions. Status quo is uncomfortable to our species. Stumbling towards happiness, having a mindset that supports growth, adopting power poses, and leading fulfilled lives are the aspirations of our time. If you prefer homeostasis, why bother living, seems to be the message.

Self-improvement takes many guises today. Several surveys, including one conducted by Field Agent, a data collection blog, and the American College of Sports Medicine, state that the top trends include fitness wearables, diet foods, gym memberships, apps, time-management tools, educational courses, fibre, probiotics, and kitchen appliances like juicers and blenders. This column will talk about all these sections, and then some.

People do many things to better themselves. They take up a sport, learn languages, do yoga, meditate and practise gratitude. They undergo therapy: Cognitive behavioural therapy is the current favourite, and it even has a dedicated app called Moodkit. I have tried all these things.

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 short cuts—and that is what will differentiate this column from others. Minimum input, maximum output. You could call me lazy, but mine is a unique kind of laziness. It has an Indian inventiveness (jugaad) 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 easily doable. This is one column where feedback is all-important. I seek your tips, tricks and methods of self-improvement. If appropriate, I will amplify them in this column, attributing the idea to you, of course.

You can’t be bothered with all this self-help s#*t? Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to The Better Life.

Shoba Narayan has not read Cicero, only the multiple blog versions of his self-improvement tips. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.

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