Sunday, September 11, 2016

Happiness: The Formula is Flawed


The word 'science,' in my imagination, is a shining cube, all edges. And I think of it that way, in spite of having been a good science student, because I find the language of science to be completely impenetrable. At times I think this must be because language has failed science - it has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of scientific enquiry. Other times, I think this must be because scientists (at least some of them) look at the world so differently than civilians that they fail words - the things they say sound plastic, tinny, hollow - even though they are right.

And what makes me say this? An article (and here I am to be faulted for failing to remember where it was posted, and who it was by) about some of the pitfalls of positive thinking, with a lead researcher quoted as saying that life is about a range of emotions, and that all of them - including the negative ones - have a purpose and role to play in our emotional well-being. In a similar vein, another researcher is quoted by the Scientific American as saying that "It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts."

There's something not quite right about the language of these statements. There's nothing wrong with them - they're perfectly accurate - yet their assigning of value and utility to what are the most fundamental aspects of human existence, their cooly composed validation of what is, essentially, the truth of human experience, is disturbing. These statements are so very reductionistic, boiling the emotional, ethical mess of living down to a handy equation:

Some happiness + some (not-happiness) = life.

But I suppose the problem isn't so much with science, although there's a long and pedigreed history of scientists refusing to acknowledge or investigate the intangible and non-quantifiable. That's changing rapidly, as it should. The problem is with a culture and a mindset that allows for happiness to be spoken of as if it were a consumer good, available for purchase at a nearby store, easily assembled, D-I-Y style, once you've taken your kit back home.

Happiness is not the sum of constituent parts such as yoga, pop psychology, work-life balance, polyamory, athleisure, acai/chia infused waters, the right Instagram feed and openness to experience. It will not suddenly manifest, fully-formed, when your lifestyle is finally aligned with what the gurus of the day preach. I think of it as an undercurrent that runs through our lives. We define it for ourselves and earn it through an authentic and hard-won distillation of our experiences and their meanings.

Many - most of us - fail to be happy. One of the reasons for this is that we mistake the lifestyle for the living. The other is that we're barking up the wrong tree, because happiness is overrated.

Positive psychology and philosophy have taught us so much about well-being. But they've dangerously skewed the conversation towards feeling good. And what has this emphasis on feeling good cost us? We routinely and unthinkingly stigmatize sadness and sorrow, forcing the unhappy to hide in plain sight. We traffic in weekend retreats and self-help books that confuse happiness with convenience. There's a preoccupation with being happy as opposed to what it takes to become happy. And is becoming happy the same thing, or even as valuable a thing, as becoming better?

Everything doesn't happen for a reason, and terrible, horrific things happen to good people. Adversities are not perceptual problems. They can break us and embitter us, with good reason. But some challenges help us grow, if we have the opportunity and the courage (the two are not one and the same) to let them. That's the stuff of life, isn't it? To take what we have and get - and where choice is possible - to make something of it?

It's so much more interesting to wrestle with these questions than to receive them as verifiable fact from the scientific study of the day. So much more wholesome to embody them than to encounter them on Pinterest. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Of Music, Memory and Mystery

A decade ago, or, to put it more accurately, in another lifetime, I completed the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree in Hindustani classical music. Stretched between completing college applications for my Master's studies, psychology lectures, practicals and five music lessons a week, I didn't so much give my final music exam as slowly implode through it. Later, I gingerly lifted myself from the wreckage, found all my vital bits intact, and walked away, never to look back. 

Not true. I still love music. But somewhere between the second year and the very demanding fourth and fifth years, between the twelve and fourteen raga syllabus, between the memorization of dozens of intricate internal aural structures, between the development of an ear for sur and taal and the infinite variations of each, between the eight hours a week of classes, music became less a labour of love and more plain labour. It was one more subject added to the long list of those I was studying for my (actual) B.A. degree, one more sphere of knowledge to condense into handy byte-sized bits, breathlessly exacavated at exam time. 

But music is the ultimate abstraction, and it is never so much learned or studied as absorbed. You grow your knowledge of music, you nurture it, you make space for it temporally, physically, mentally and, some would say, spiritually. Music isn't a lifelong pursuit. It is a life-long meditation. 

Which might be why my superficial knowledge of ragas, acquired over the fraught and frantic last two years of musical schooling, simply evaporated over the course of my Master's degree and career in, well, nonmusical things. I'd attend concerts, identify the occasional raga, maybe even a bandish, if I was lucky, but draw a complete blank regarding its formal, theoretical sub and super structures. The finesse was gone. All I had was clumsy recognition. 

What's more important than what I have lost, though, is what I have gained and retained. Years of learning from the most generous of teachers have honed my listening skills. I know, instinctively, whether a musical performance has genuine quality. I have been taught to look beyond musical showmanship and attend to a performer's depth of understanding. The things they tell you about listening well being a joy? They're true.  

And then there are the memories of the music itself, living, thriving trace memories. There have been times when I've heard a raga at a performance, and hours or days later, begun humming something at home that I thought I'd forgotten years ago - interestingly, a fragment of the same raga or a sister raga from the same thaat. An echo, almost, belatedly responding to the call of sound. 

Sorting through my bookshelf yesterday, I stumbled upon my second and third year textbooks and was delighted to find that I remember almost every bandish from those more relaxed years - note for note, inflection for inflection. 

How do musical memories work? It's incredible, and incredibly mysterious. After all, as I mentioned earlier, music is the ultimate abstraction. Listening neither depends on, nor leaves behind, bio-chemical markers. We can all claim to have been moved by music, to remember exactly where we were, how we felt, what we were doing when we heard a particular song. But the music itself? How do we remember it? Isn't recollecting music, playing it back to ourselves in our minds, hearing it without the stimulus of sound - the abstracting of the abstraction - the ultimate illusion? 

We never got around to studying musical memories that one year I studied cognitive psychology. And while I'm sure the research in this area has progressed by leaps and bounds, I've never bothered to investigate any of it for myself. It's laziness, for sure. But it is also a certain pleasure in the idea of mystery and magic, in the sense that the intangible, the ineffable, is as much a part of me as the tangible. Is as alive, if not more.  

Not all those who wander are lost. Not all that can be explained, should be. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Reluctant Millennial Tangles with Time


I have a problem with time. 

It is absolute, it defies tinkering, it is unyielding and impossible to escape or evade. 

And yet, people of all stripes are spinning their own temporal fantasies, relishing their second (or third) flushes of youth, exploring frighteningly early adulthoods, experiencing protracted adolescences, enjoying unprecedented longevity. 

Against all odds, the biggest one of them being reality, of course, we've managed to endow time with a sort of sociological subjectivity. Identify with the generational quirk or cultural current of your choice, and you get to speed time up or slow it down. Or, more accurately, you get to interpret time as having accelerated or stalled. 

It's all very confusing. 

The problem is, of course, that we experience time through age. And age no longer means what it used to mean. The conventional markers - college, post-graduation, first job, second job, marriage, home ownership, parenthood - are nowhere close to irrelevant, but they're all being relocated and reframed by the tidal wave of individual choice. 

How apt that we have witnessed the launch and evolution of Facebook's Timeline. We watch hundreds of personal trajectories unfold, moment by moment, marker by marker. Fodder for occasional delight, casual voyeurism and garden-variety jealousy and anxiety.   

It's absurd. You show up at the prescribed place and the prescribed time, on the verge of a chronological landmark, and find that the ground is still moving underneath your feet. 

It's liberating. You show up at the prescribed place and the prescribed time, on the verge of a chronological landmark, and find that most things - if not all - remain possible. 

We have the blessing of choice, and bear the burden of having no one to blame. It's a weighty contradiction to live with, and yet we do so, everyday. 

Perhaps that's the cosmic joke. We, this luckiest of generations, came of age a while back. We just didn't know it then. Do we know it now? 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Learning a Little Loss

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Words of wisdom that everyone is fated to pass on. And to ignore.

Loss comes to us in many different ways and in many different forms, some so subtle and unrecognizable that it is only after you carefully and consciously sift through the misty haze of the experience itself, that you realize something is dislocated, missing, lost. 

Leonard Nimoy, known to the world as Spock, passed away last night, aged 83. By all accounts he lived a full life, doing justice to his talent and dignifying his fame with grace and wisdom. Spock is one of the first fictional characters I can remember truly responding to as I was growing up. My affection for him was in part inherited - we were in no way a family of geeks/nerds (yes, the distinction remains unclear to me) but we shared some of the community's interests, including, namely, a lingering affection for the original Star Trek series.

Spock came closest to the realization of a promise that animates so many Eastern spiritual traditions - that detachment can cultivate deep compassion. He seemed to fulfill a Zen/Buddhist ideal of constant and unrelenting self-awareness, while also retaining a profound humaneness. He was wise, but he was kind. He knew everything, including the limits of what he knew. 

Spock must have been a lot of Leonard Nimoy, but Leonard Nimoy was not all Spock. At least, he tried not to be. 

Growing up is so many things, and I've written about it on this blog before. Glibly and falsely, I might add. Growing up is watching the cricket team you cheered for, retire. Growing up is watching your metabolism slow down. Growing up is losing old friends and making new ones. Growing up is picking your battles, maybe. Growing up is a lot of things I haven't learnt about yet. But today, I realize it is also reading a newspaper headline and knowing that you just lost a hero you didn't quite know you had.    

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding my Inner Fanboy


Think about the next paragraph as a series of increasingly smaller concentric circles. It's not essential to do so, in fact it's entirely unnecessary, but it might be fun.

I have a father (as do we all). He's a voracious reader. He bought as many books as he could as a school and college student and managed to hold on to them through moves between multiple addresses, preserving them in (fairly) good condition. As an adult, he then had the incredibly good fortune of being able to buy a house which afforded him storage space for these books. Which he used to its full measure, stacking them high and snug, lining bookshelf after bookshelf and paying for stone shelves to be fitted in where it looked like the wooden ones might just give way.

Which is how I, decades later, in a small study with sloping ceilings and round windows and an always debilitated table-top fan, was able to discover the books of his boyhood. I encountered illustrated editions of Homer's Odyssey, books chronicling the World Wars, monthly magazines on science and mechanics, the Phantom, Mandrake, Biggles, the Hardy Boys, the gritty, grizzled cowboys of Louis L' Amour's  Wild West, Perry Mason (who I was too young and entirely too sensible to find attractive) and the man from U.N.C.L.E (whom I did not like). I read Alistair Maclean and even a little pioneering science fiction, although I didn't warm to the genre as my father had.

I wasn't the archetypal tousled tomboy with scraped knees and elbows. But as an indiscriminate reader who had the good fortune of never being schooled in 'girliness,' I genuinely enjoyed these books written for boys. They were filled with adventures and almost-disasters and acts of rough-and-tumble heroism which perfectly complemented the lessons in boarding school social justice and the slightly compliant cleverness that characterized writing for girls. At least, the writing I was reading until I discovered the more complex charms of Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit and many, many others.

I was a girl with a little bit of boy mixed in. Boys were boys with a little bit of girl mixed in. We were too young for gender consciousness. It didn't feel like a choice needed to be made between playing house and watching Blossom and reading about fighter pilots, all in a day. Our lives were gendered, I know that. Whose aren't? But we were the country's last generation of pre-lib children and we were blissfully unaware.  

I was thinking about all of this when I was wondering, on loop, what it was that I liked quite so much about Sons of Anarchy, my new favourite TV show. Which is saying something for someone who is incredibly ambivalent about television and has worked through a short-lived Mindy Project phase less than six months back.

I've tried to diagnose my affection for the show and its characters by reading critics' reviews, by looking at blog posts which are as likely to describe the show as misogynistic, as they are to examine the machinations of its strong and stronger women characters, by perusing deconstructions of the show's authentic constructions of modern-but-mythic biker subculture.

I really shouldn't enjoy the episodes as much as I do. The body count is healthy, the profanities flow on tap and some of its moral 'dilemmas' can be easily resolved by anyone with a functioning moral compass. Practically everyone on the show, even doctors doubling up as girlfriends, are bona fide killers. And I would have given anything for Charlie Hunnam to get his golden locks out of the way and invest in a proper shave and haircut. Which he eventually did get, for free, in jail.

But there's a part of me that enjoys the performances (most of them absolutely spot on), the all day drinking, the eccentricities, the quips, the noisy bikes, the improbability of wanton mayhem that's allowed to unfold as long as the debris collect outside Charming. I can acknowledge that these might in fact be good guys gone bad. Sons of Anarchy is entirely unrelatable, is removed from everyone and everything I know. But it's fun and it speaks to my long-forgotten, now grown up, smidgen of boyishness.

Dude? Man? Boy.   

And I realize that that's as good a reason to watch as any. 
 
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