The Better Life

I am thrilled to start a new column called “The Better Life.”

The piece below explains everything.

How to get fit without exercising and other such shortcuts

Simple things like stretching while waiting for the coffee to brew—and some a bit more complex grounded in psychology and science—but all easily do-able

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!

80th Birthday

Life for many of us is not about artistic genius or business impact. It is about small pleasures, rich relationships and the ability to make peace with your soul

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Aug 17 2012. 8:32 PM IST

In the last six months, I have participated in five sathabhishekams-as 80th birthdays are called in my community.  Milestone events help you mark time and take stock.  For the Hindu 80th birthday, the date is usually fixed after the person has seen 1000 full-moons.  Both my father and father-in-law celebrated this, as did three very close uncles.  In the West, people turn 80 and take viagra.  In my community, people turn 80 and drink hot-water infused with dried ginger root.  Hugh Hefner might gather around 11 Playboy bunnies for his 80th birthday.  We gather around 11 bare-bodied priests who will chant the Rudram in praise of the ascetic God, Shiva.    Typical of the patriarchy that still pervades Hinduism, this 80th birthday is usually celebrated for the man.

Turning 80 is a good time to confront the question that author Clayton M. Christensen poses in his well-meaning but ultimately pointless book: how will you measure your life? The premise of Christensen’s book, and one that I disagree with, is that wisdom can be taught; that happiness can be engineered.   For example, Christensen blithely imparts business concepts-the most gag-inducing one being, ‘Create a culture,’– that aim to help the reader pursue happiness.  The book should have been an article.  At best, it serves as a nudge; something that readers can mull over and then most likely forget.  Behavioral modification of the kind Christensen advocates requires discipline and commitment, both of which can be taught but not through a book.  Teaching it in a classroom environment over the course of months seems to be a better model.  The best way is to follow Christensen’s own approach.  He earned the right to write this book through intense introspection, which arguably, is the only way to gain wisdom.  He says that he spent an hour a day during his year as a Rhodes scholar meditating and praying about the purpose of his life.  Each phrase in the previous sentence delineates Christensen as an exceptional person.  What about the rest of us? What about the average person who doesn’t have the intellect to be a Rhodes Scholar; the faith and the discipline to meditate an hour a day at age 20-something; or the means to do any of the above?

My skepticism of self-help books such as Christensen’s doesn’t, however, detract from the seductiveness of its title.  How will you measure your life? For the educated elite, and certainly those graduating from Harvard Business School, where Christensen teaches, a good measure of a life well-lived would be impact and legacy: building an institution, affecting countless lives, making enough wealth to pass on to future generations, improving the world.

Legacy in this business context is usually built or engineered, but in the art world, it can often be an accident.  When the Japanese artist, Hokusai, created the woodblock print that would become a Japanese art icon nearly 200 years later, he didn’t know he was creating a legacy.  His print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is among the most recognizable pieces of Japanese art.  But Hokusai wasn’t aiming for immortality when he created that beautiful wood-block print in Prussian blue.  He was cultivating the self; aiming for the divine.  A quote attributed to him at the end of his life says that none of the pictures he had produced till age 70 had little merit.  “At 100, I will make real wonders and at 110, every point, every line, will have a life of its own,” said Hokusai.  I have read similar quotes from Hindustani musicians in Sheela Dhar’s wonderful book, “Raga n’ Josh,” in which singers aim for honesty and integrity in every musical phrase they essay.  Hokusai’s measure of his life in terms of the integrity of his art was every bit as lofty and ambitious as Andrew Carnegie’s desire to build steel plants and cultural institutions.  The East plumbs inward to chart and measure growth of the self; the West measures external impact.  But what of average lives that cannot be measured through achievement either in the material or artistic sense?    Life, for many of us is not about artistic genius or business impact.  It is about small pleasures, rich relationships, and the ability to make peace with your soul.  It is about what author Katrina Kenison calls, “The Gift of the Ordinary Day.”

The people who attended my father-in-law’s 80th birthday were not the spectrum of political contacts he had made during his years in Delhi.  They were a broader version of that vaunted Indian stereotype: the joint family.  Who will come to your birthday when you turn 80? Who will you invite to be with you when you have little to gain and nothing to prove? As I saw this year with five sathabhishekams, it will be those people who are part of you; the people you love.

How will you measure you life? By increasing the surface area of the people you love.  Unlike monuments that can be built; unlike intelligence, which can be faked; learning to love your frail friends and dysfunctional family requires tolerance and generosity.  Affection is not about what you do; it is about who you are.  Worst of all– from a goal-oriented point of view–it cannot be measured, only felt.  Building a web of affection is, to my mind, the hardest goal there is; and also one of the few goals worth pursuing.


Shoba Narayan doesn’t measure her life but that may be because she isn’t good in mathematics.