Dare to be different


Aruna Sankaranarayanan

The most mundane or tedious task can be invigorating, if done differently

Do you always get up from one side of your bed? Well, try getting up from the other side tomorrow. If you usually brush your teeth with your right hand, try brushing with your left, for a change. If you have oats for breakfast on most days, eat a dosa or an ootapam instead. When you ride to college, take a different route. Instead of listening to your favourite radio channel, switch to a channel in another language.

You probably got the point. Try something different. Just about anything, as long as you inject variety and unpredictability into your life. While routines may make us more efficient, we need to trade efficiency for variation, at least once in a while. Why?

This is because, research has found that being open, in a broad sense, to experiences has many benefits. In fact, openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits that distinguishes people. Psychologist Art Markman defines openness as, “The degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.” It reflects the extent to which you are willing to step outside your comfort zone to try novel ideas and experiences.

Open people

According to psychologist Luke Smillie, open people are generally more curious and creative and devour ‘culture’ in the form of books, movies, art, music and dance. They like to seek out new encounters and enjoy travelling to unfamiliar places. In contrast, less open people prefer more tried-and-tested practices and like to follow predictable routines.

In an oft-cited study by Robert McCrae, open people displayed more divergent thinking, which involves thinking of multiple solutions to a problem and is one of the hallmarks of creativity. For example, how many uses can you think of, for a toothbrush? Typical answers involve using it as a cleaning or mixing implement or perhaps for spray painting. Open people are likely to think of unusual responses like using it as a stick to support plants, to comb eyebrows or to make decorative patterns while icing cakes.

Interestingly, Smillie also writes that open people are more prone to feeling “mixed emotions” or the “simultaneous experience of contrasting feeling states.” Thus, on graduation day, you may be excited that you are embarking on a new career path while feeling a tinge of sadness for leaving your alma mater.

However, like most psychological traits, openness also has its downsides. In a paper published in 2012, in Scientific Research , Ronnie McGhee and colleagues found that openness to experience was correlated to high levels of risk-taking in a laboratory task in pre-adolescents. And, in the real world, risk-taking has real consequences. Rash driving, drug and alcohol usage and unprotected sexual experimentation may all be novel and exciting experiences at first. But, the repercussions of these behaviours suggest that we should exercise prudence before indulging in them.

That said, most other experiences are fairly benign. While we should always be careful, we should not let caution stymie our interactions with the world. More importantly, we shouldn’t follow routines on auto pilot all the time. Every now and then, we should question what we do. Even the most mundane or tedious task can invigorate us if done differently. If you detest cooking, invite a friend and bake a cake together. If you always put off cleaning your cupboard, go out and buy some snazzy wrapping paper to line your drawers. Even a small change can spur you to do more.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. arunasankara@gmail.com

The power of positivity


Aruna Sankaranarayanan

A recent article in The New York Times reported that the most popular course at Yale University is ‘Psychology and the Good Life’. This course has a staggering enrolment of 1,182 students. Large lecture classes at Yale usually attract around half the number of students. That so many students, who are majoring in a broad array of disciplines, should evince interest in a positive psychology course speaks volumes about the myriad pressures plaguing students across campuses worldwide.

Yes, we do live in highly-charged times. An article published in a website states that 70 million Indians suffer from mental health ailments. Young people are particularly vulnerable as the strains and stresses on them have only multiplied over the years. Despite living in a more connected age, students often feel lonely, misunderstood and isolated. With parents also anxious about their admissions and career prospects, young people often don’t know who to turn to when they feel overwhelmed. In addition to the burden of ever-increasing academic expectations, youngsters also have to navigate a tricky social terrain, both real and virtual. Moreover, young people are ridden with angst by the unpredictability of tomorrow’s workplace.

Sunnier disposition

But cheer up. All is not lost. Writer and positive psychology advocate, Shawn Achor, provides concrete tips and strategies in his book, The Happiness Advantage, that can help you course through life more smoothly without getting bogged down by negativity. In fact, he argues that “happiness is the precursor to success” rather than the other way around.

Most people assume that our happiness is based on life’s circumstances. If fortune favours us, we smile. If not, we frown. This is indeed true, but only to an extent. Research in positive psychology indicates that we can actually raise our happiness levels regardless of our situations by adopting simple but empirically proven practices.

And guess what? As our happiness levels rise, so does our chance for encountering success. And, this only fuels our happiness further, resulting in more positivity. In fact, Achor exhorts us to think of happiness as “not just a mood” but a “work ethic.” So, how do you go about sporting a sunnier disposition? Achor suggests the following activities as they are known to boost people’s moods:

  • Far-fetched though it may sound, innumerable studies point to the immense benefits of meditation. Just close your eyes and focus on your breathing for five minutes a day.
  • You may also do something kind everyday. It could be as simple as slowing down your bike so an old man can cross the road.
  • Exercise at least three times a week for 45 minutes. Working out has been found to alleviate even the symptoms of depression.
  • Instead of spending money on things, invest in memorable experiences. Take a friend out to lunch, go bowling or watch a play.
  • Engage in a hobby where you can exercise your ‘signature strengths’, be it painting or miming.

Turn setbacks into opportunities

Next, you can also adopt what Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, terms a growth mindset, wherein you believe that your talents, skills, abilities, and even your happiness levels for that matter are not fixed inherently but are mutable. With the right kind of effort and practice, you can surprise yourself on how much you can actually accomplish.

According to Achor, “The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines out reality.” For example, in one study, hotel maids who had been led to believe that their daily work was a form of exercise actually shed weight and had reduced cholesterol levels after some weeks. In contrast, the control group, who hadn’t been told to conceive of their work as exercise, did not show the same benefits.

It also helps to look at the positives of a situation, no matter how dire, rather than simply fixating on the drawbacks. In order to cultivate a sunny side-up world view, jot down at least three good things that happen to you every day, no matter how miserable your day has been. After a few weeks, you may start noticing the pluses of what appears to be a bleak situation more readily.

Achor narrates the story of two shoes salesmen who were dispatched to Africa to study the market. One salesman described the situation as “hopeless” as no one wore shoes there. The other responded that it was a “glorious opportunity” as people didn’t have any shoes as yet. Similarly, over time, you may start reframing events in such a way that setbacks transform into opportunities. He also urges us to invest in social relationships so that we maintain strong ties with family and friends.

Of course, this means meeting people fact-to-face on a frequent basis rather than simply exchanging ‘likes’ on social media. In fact, people with strong social networks are less likely to feel threatened by negative events.

So, while you may be focused on an upcoming exam or a job interview, remember that your happiness is central to your life’s successes. And, just as you spend time and effort in pursuing academic and professional goals, make sure you also devote resources to being contented and optimistic.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

How to keep distractions at bay

How to keep distractions at bay


Walk into an average office today and you will see umpteen fingers tapping away on keyboards while screens flicker in front of tired eyes. In addition, people will glance at phones beeping with updates, and answer calls with an unmatched urgency. With chattering mouths and flying fingers, most offices are charged with energy. Yes, everyone is veritably busy but is anyone truly working?

Focused work

Not according to essay-writing.net writer  and Computer Science professor, Cal Newport, who has coined the term ‘deep work’ to describe “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Students, who will be embarking on a career soon, and young and seasoned professionals, can all benefit from developing ‘deep work’ habits. By understanding how the tugs of daily workplace demands can actually hamper more significant aspects of productivity, they can make a conscientious effort to optimise their time so that they don’t feel that they haven’t accomplished much at the end of another busy day.

According to Newport, our current work habits, which for most of us involve periodically checking our inboxes and phones, are eroding our ability to work in a focused manner for extended durations thereby degrading the quality of our output. Furthermore, in today’s fast-changing world, jobs are metamorphosing at increasingly rapid rates. To stay relevant in such an economy, we have to continually upgrade and learn new skills. And, as any experienced learner can attest, “to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.”

Foremost, Newport cautions us against equating busyness with productivity. How often have you felt that you were so caught up in the humdrum of everyday things that by the end of the day you felt you still hadn’t accomplished much? It’s not like you were goofing off by lying in a hammock. On the contrary, you may have been at your desk, responding to emails and messages, talking to colleagues and sorting out day-to-day problems.

But most people’s jobs also demand that they produce something of value. It could be a lesson plan for a teacher or a market forecast for an executive. But very often, these responsibilities, which are core to our productivity, get sidelined as other activities compete for our limited attention. The reason we tend to postpone these jobs is that they demand more intense focus than attending meetings or answering emails. Newport thus cautions us against conflating ‘busyness’ with ‘productivity.’

Furthermore, not only does working with focus make us more prolific or inventive, it also enhances our overall well-being. He quotes science writer, Winifred Gallagher, who learnt a profound truth about life satisfaction the hard way. Upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, Gallagher boldly pledged that, “This disease wanted to monopolise my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” Indeed, at a most elemental level, the quality of our lives is determined by what we choose to attend to.

In fact, renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe the experience of intense focus where people lose sight of all else but what they are working on. And, surprisingly, people report feeling deeply satisfied when in this state.

Have a routine

So, how do we engage in deep work when innumerable demands tug at our attention right through the day? Newport sagely reminds us that we can’t simply will ourselves to work deeply all of a sudden. Instead, we need to cultivate routines and rituals that promote our ability to work on meaningful tasks with razor-like focus. Depending on the type of job you have, you have to decide how you can carve out time for deep work. For example, a professor may decide to take on a heavy teaching load one semester so that she can work almost exclusively on research another semester.

Choose whatever works for you based on the demands of your current job. But once you decide on a routine, stick to it in a steadfast fashion. Try to work in the same location every time with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign outside your door. You also need to decide whether you will ban Internet connectivity altogether or limit it to sites that you will need for your work. Make sure your phone is away and you don’t access other sites that will intrude on your focus.

Of course, engaging in deep work does not have to make you a monk. In fact, new ideas and inventions often spring from collaborations and serendipitous interactions. But for these ideas and inventions to take root, you also need time alone with your thoughts. Also, it’s important that you have well-defined goals, when it comes to deep work. If you are running a start-up, your long-term goal may be to have an app running within six months with a client base of at least a few thousand people. Your short-term goal may involve developing various facets of the app and pilot testing them with a small number of people.

In order to motivate yourself, Newport urges you to keep a visible scoreboard where you can chart your progress. Keeping a tab of the hours you spend in deep work each week can goad you into optimising your potential essay writer. In addition, you may put a star when you achieve a particular milestone.

Finally, he also reminds us that we need to schedule downtime so that our brains can unwind and recharge. Here’s wishing you a happy and hopefully more productive 2018.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

An apology works wonders


Sibling Sensitivities

Gita Nambiar

“You love Anna, you don’t love me”, is an oft heard refrain in families with two or more children. Parents are generally at a loss when it comes to handling sibling rivalry. The reasons are many – ranging from physical appearance, prowess in sports to excelling in academics. It is inevitable in most households; however, the severity varies from home to home. Whereas in some cases it is mild and manageable, in others, it takes on gigantic proportions, even culminating in bodily harm or seriously affecting the personality.

This is a sensitive issue and needs to be handled with caution and in an empathetic manner. Parents need to give it a thought even before the second child is born. The first child would have monopolized all the love and affection for a long period and become accustomed to receiving the undivided attention of parents and other family members. To be suddenly deprived of all this and be thrust aside, while the newcomer is welcomed into the fold, can be traumatising.

It would be a wise move to prepare the firstborn for the arrival of a sibling, in a positive manner. That he or she will have a playmate and companion and would soon be given the esteemed status of an older brother or sister, with someone to take care of and protect. Each parent can take turns spending time with the two children. Other family members too can ensure that the older sibling is not deprived of attention.

It is quite natural for the arrival of the newborn to be viewed with apprehension and sometimes rejection by the older sibling and these feelings need to be handled delicately. Parents who are themselves the older of two siblings may recall their own reactions at the birth of a younger brother or sister. It would be a good idea to involve the older child in the care of the younger one so he does not feel left out. He could be a participant in all play activities and given responsible roles to play in the nurture of his sibling.

Bringing up two or more children in a family should be a pleasurable experience for the parents and not considered a deprivation of freedom and private space and time. The happiness automatically transfers to the children, who grow up emotionally secure and content. The way we scrutinise our children determines how they look at each other. The most important factor to remember is that each child is a unique creation. Once we absorb and internalise this idea, it makes the going easier.

Children are unlike peas in a pod. No two are alike, even among identical twins. As parents, we cannot rest on our laurels thinking if we can bring up one child, the second should be a piece of cake. Each one is different and has varying needs. As they grow and learn, we grow and learn too, and it is an enriching experience. We need to be alert and sharp in order to identify each one’s highs and lows. A requirement that is absolutely essential in their nurture is ‘acceptance’ – for what they are and what they turn out to be. While the former is beyond our control, the latter is well within our means. We need to revel in their victories and strengths and be supportive in their defeats and weaknesses.

As much as we are aware of each child’s pluses and minuses, we also need to make each sibling aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses. They should respect each other’s qualities. We, as parents, should encourage each one’s pursuits and refrain from comparing one with the other. Quality time should be spent with each separately, doing what they like. Household rules should apply equally to both and each should be given his or her share of responsibilities. The atmosphere at home should be conducive so that each child feels free to share his concerns and emotions. Children should be encouraged and appreciated for helping and caring about each other.

In families where there is a special child, there is a natural tendency to focus more on this child. The typical sibling may feel neglected and bitter, but this attitude can be turned around by counselling him or her on why the other child requires the extra attention in view of his inadequacies. A feeling of empathy can be created, which could prove beneficial in the care of the special child.

Sibling rivalry is a problem that can be worked on and solved with sufficient forethought on the part of the parent. As most parents would agree, even a one-year old child has a mind of his own. Bringing up two or more very different individuals is definitely challenging, but the right measures of patience, understanding, tolerance and appreciation can mould well-adjusted and mutually accepting kids. We can then pat ourselves on the back for a job well executed!

(Gita Nambiar is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)