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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)

A Fun Tour of a Library


Sneha D

“Know your library” was the theme of our book club at Prashantnagar. As children sat curiously not knowing why they were asked to maintain complete silence, our book club began with an introduction to a library. Children were asked if they could name some things they can and cannot do in a library.

To give an insight as to how a library works, the book Curious George Visits the Library was read out. This story is about a monkey named George, who is lucky to arrive at the library just in time for story hour. But it’s not easy for the little monkey to sit still for too long and he just has to get his hands on that one dinosaur book. George quickly finds so many books he wants to read and fills his library cart with them. He can’t wait to take them home and is in a hurry. He finds himself in trouble when he topples his cart and all the books are on the floor. With help from friends and the librarians, he is able to clean up his mess. George later selects his books and gets his very own library card.

The book reading was followed by the reading of the Library Poem by Julia Donaldson. The children were then introduced to ten words related to a library and were asked to find which picture on the board related to each word. This was followed by a discussion on the benefits of a library after which, each child had to come up and talk about their favourite book and why they liked it. At the end, book marks were given to the children and the importance of maintaining and treating books well was discussed. Overall, the book club revealed the excitement of visiting a library and sharing books.

(Sneha is a special educator at 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)

The Wonder of Belief

The Wonder of Belief

Nanditha Prabhu

Santa Claus does not exist. Or does he? PRAYATNA, Prashantnagar embarked on a mysterious trip during our December book club as we read the Polar Express and journeyed to the North Pole . During this ride, the little boy learns one of the important lessons of life i.e., “the wonder of life never fades for those who believe.”

The book begins with a roaring train whistle. The boy finds a train waiting for him. He finds a conductor who explains that the train is the Polar Express, and is journeying to the North Pole. The boy then boards the train, which is filled with chocolate and candy, as well as many other children in their pyjamas. The train takes the children to the centre of the city, where Santa and the elves have gathered for the giving of the first gift of Christmas. The boy is chosen to receive this first gift. Knowing that he can ask for anything in the world, he decides on a simple gift: one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. When the children return to the train, the boy realizes the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. Heartbroken, he is returned to his home. In the morning, his little sister finds one small box with the boy’s name on it among the presents. Inside is the silver bell! The boy continues to believe in the spirit of Christmas and is able to hear the sweet ringing of the bell even as an adult.


The book club began with an explanation of the significance of Christmas and the story behind it. Children were also told about North Pole, where Santa ‘lives’. This was followed by a narration of the book and a quiz based on it. Later hot chocolate was served to the children and Christmas carols were played. Presents were kept under a Christmas tree and every child was asked to pick one at the end of the session.

(Nanditha is a special educator at PRAYATNA)

An apology works wonders



Andrea Nirmal

The October book club at PRAYATNA, Chennai, buzzed with excitement as children brought pictures of their grandmothers and fondly shared anecdotes about them. We spent some time discussing how parents were different from grandparents and the kids shared some interesting perspectives. For instance, one child said, “Parents look after grandparents and grandparents look after grandchildren.”

We chose to read an excerpt from the book Swami & Friends by R K Narayan. Set in an imaginary south Indian village called Malgudi, the story revolves around a boy called Swami. Like any other schoolboy of his age, Swami daydreams in his class, likes to loaf around with his friends, enjoys the pampering of his mother and grandmother and fears the discipline of his father. Listening raptly to the excerpt, children felt a sense of familiarity as they connected with the two main characters– Swami and his grandmother. The excerpt vividly described Swami’s relationship with his grandmother and recounts the events of a particular day.

Following the book reading, the kids enthusiastically participated in a quiz. We then introduced the concept of mono-acting, and invited children to come forward and mono-act scenarios presented to them. The scenarios were primarily based on the child, and their parents and grandparents responding to them. The scenarios included the child wanting to eat ice-cream, being asked to fold clothes at home by the mother, wanting to buy the latest watch etc. There was lively participation as kids incorporated out-of-the-box ideas into mono-acting their scenarios.

Towards the end children were asked to share one adjective that they thought best described their grandmothers. Each child was given a card to draw on or write and give to their grandmothers.

(Andrea Nirmal is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Crocodile Smiles

Crocodile Smiles

Ann Sarah Paul

Leading a healthy life is integral to the holistic development of children. With this in mind and to introduce the concept of a “healthy lifestyle”, the book Crocodile Smiles, was read to the children on 11 November, 2017 at PRAYATNA, Prashantnagar. This story is about a crocodile who was popular with nature photographers for his lovely set of teeth and good physique. On once such assignment, he is given a truckload of chocolate as a reward. Elated, he eats chocolate for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even between. Despite his friends’ counsel to think about the consequences of eating so much chocolate, he continues and finds that his teeth, health, physique and eventually his fame get affected.

The book club began with a narration of the story, followed by a quiz based on it. Later, the children were shown random pictures, which had to be categorised as either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. The children were then divided into two groups and asked to enact scenarios exhibiting healthy and unhealthy eating habits. At the end, the children went home with fruits that were given to them and the value of leading and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

(The author is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)




Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our nation was born on 2 October, 1869. Every year, his birthday is celebrated across the nation as Gandhi Jayanti. This September, we decided to give the children a brief insight into the life of Gandhi. My Gandhi Story, by Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, Nina Sabnani and Ankit Chadha gives us a visual and creative take on the life of Gandhi. The book is adapted to cater to the understanding of young children. In the book, there are three voices- the narrator, a child who questions the narrator and Gandhiji himself.

During the book club, the book reading was performed initially. A quiz was conducted to examine whether the children have gained an understanding of Gandhiji from the book. The children were given scenarios and were asked to come up in pairs and enact their response to that particular scenario in a non-violent and violent manner. The staff had modelled a few scenarios to enable the children to gain a better understanding. After the activity, the children were told that it is better to respond to situations in a non-violent manner. To wind up the book club, the children were asked draw a simple caricature of Gandhiji which was demonstrated by the teacher. Each child was given a small packet of rock salt to highlight the significance of the Dandi March.

(Rithika Grace Zachariah is a special educator at PRAYATNA)