How to Lead a Good Life

(C) Ashwini Mokashi

The pursuit of happiness is led by everyone across the planet throughout the human history. Assuming there must be some truths to this pursuit which are common across the world, I turned to the ancient wisdom on the subject. Little did I imagine that the road to happiness would go through wise and moral choices. If that was true for ancient philosophers, would it still hold true today? Would it be possible for us to overcome various obstacles to arrive at some basic principles of life, that would lead us to a good life?

The wise people of yore came up with an ideal of a human being, known as Sapiens in the Greek/Roman philosophy and ‘Sthitaprajna’ in the Indian philosophy of the Gita and the Upanishads. The tools they have provided us include being detached from our circumstances, taking right decisions by vigorous thinking and challenging one’s beliefs and ideas, acting morally without being unjust to oneself or the others, taking control of one’s negative emotions especially anger, grief and anxiety, accepting the inevitable as the law of nature and most importantly understanding the laws of nature, facts of sciences and our emotional make-up. When this seems like an impossible task, one can find a wise person to consult with like how Arjun consulted with Lord Krishna in the Gita or how Socrates counseled other so-called wise people in the marketplace, by trying his Socratic method of questioning and challenging their beliefs.

The major obstacles in this road are emotional disturbances or having negative emotions. We see a lot of doom and gloom among our young folks leading to anxiety and depression, sometimes caused by loss of opportunities and sometimes caused by loss of face. It happens to those, who fail to do well enough, but also to those, who are extremely successful. The reason is that any kind of rejection is hard to swallow. It may be rejection in your career, in your office, in your family or in your love-life. A little detachment would help to continue to pursue our goals with a renewed effort or rethinking whether that is the right goal. Some strategic thinking and not getting too involved would help us see the light of the day. That is wisdom. In the Gita, it is known as Vairagya and in Stoicism, apatheia. It is very difficult to learn or practice detachment, but somehow life always has a way of throwing curveballs and the best way to juggle them is by staying detached and calm from these ups and downs.

Given that we now live in a global village, where immigration is the order of the day, exchange of ideas and a mish-mash of culture occurs all the time, what could help us see through all sorts of confusion is a value-based, principle based existence, where the universal values are agreed upon. Comparative philosophy becomes very useful in that sense, especially when the ancient texts of the east and the west agree on what values to pursue and how to pursue a good life for all. The remarkable family resemblance between the concept of the wise person of the Gita and Stoic Seneca requires both to use intellectual rigor to decide on the right action (Jnana-marg), then implement the right action (Karma-marg) and defend it in a way that is understood by all (wisdom).

Prevalence of positive emotions or the lack of negative emotions leads to tranquility, peace of mind and to a blissful state of happiness resulting from the integrity of thoughts and actions. The more we try to be in that state, the longer we enjoy happiness. This theory contrasts with the idea of desire-fulfillment to be happy. Fulfilling one’s goals of wealth, health, beauty and fun will give you pleasure and is important at a certain age, but that is not the way to become happy. In following this path, one must constantly challenge one’s thoughts, be strategic and think about the long-term consequences of one’s actions. For example, if buying one’s dream car may bankrupt one for many years, it may not be worth it. Taking a high-flying job without being ready to work hard and live a solitary life to focus on the job, may not be a suitable opportunity. So, if nothing else, following this path may at least put us in the right direction and do justice to ourselves and those around us to increase our chances of a good life.

(This article is based on my newly published book ‘Sapiens and Sthitaprajna’ by Ashwini Mokashi.)

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