God, we have been told, helps those who help themselves. Which is probably why even the most ardent connoisseur of high literature will have the odd self-help tome on his bookshelf. The books are often about cheeses that move, monks and fast cars, seven habits and, as I learnt recently, about making yourself happy. But do these books really help? Lounge decided to investigate.
I was handed five books on how to bring happiness into my life and asked to live one entire day per book, based on the ideas contained within. Did the guides to glee work? What was my essential takeaway from each? And, did I genuinely become happier after five days of prescription living? Read on to find out.
Don’t worry: Work towards building a positive self-image. JupiterImages, India
Day 1: Happiness: Gain and retain by Just ‘Win’ Singh
• Happiness quotient:
The author of the book is a corporate trainer and runs the Institute of Happiness in Vadodara, Gujarat. He is also, I must add, a remarkably happy man. The book has a huge yellow smiley face on the front cover, a small one on the back, and, peppered throughout, photos of several people smiling, laughing, some of them bent backwards (choking with joy, I presume). Clearly, this guy’s life is blissful (perhaps that italicised middle name is the secret).
The book itself is less than delightful. Singh’s advice is 100% soppy, email-forward cliché. But then the book is a slim volume, and won’t take more than two trips to the loo to finish. And Singh doesn’t waste time with heartfelt anecdotes and intense personal experiences to come to the point; each chapter ends with a two-bullet-point summary. This means you can pick out the book from the shelves at your nearest bookstore and glean its complete wisdom in 3-5 minutes.
Since I am inherently a happy person, this book did not significantly alter my approach to life. But to be fair to the exercise, I tried.
So when I went out for dinner with friends, I decided not to worry about how unfit and un-six-pack-ish I looked compared to the rest of the gents (Chapter 5: Stop carrying a negative image of yourself. Appreciate yourself for who you are).
To be fair to Singh, I actually had a fun night. I didn’t suck in my gut at all and no one seemed to bother.
And, at the end of the meal, I gave myself the joy of giving (Chapter 9) by slipping a little tip to the waiter and thanking him with a shake of his hand. His smile was to die for. I was thrilled with myself.
• Key takeaways:
77 The rat race is not inevitable; slow the pace of your life.
78 Stop obsessing, especially about the future.
Day 2: The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler
• Happiness quotient:
Even though I began reading this book prepared to take many digs at it, I was actually quite drawn to its reasoning and tone. The parts where Cutler is in conversation with the Dalai Lama are particularly illuminating and worth the price of the book. The Dalai Lama is a gifted thinker and an equally gifted articulator of his thoughts. For a person subject to such relentless persecution and loss, his advice on happiness is thoughtful and, as I experienced, quite effective.
Living and working in Mumbai presents particular challenges to those seeking happiness. My taxi ride to work each morning entails driving past dozens of shanty houses that line the Wadala bridge. When traffic slows to a crawl each morning, and I frown and thumb through songs on the iPod to vent my frustration, one look out of the window is enough to put things in perspective. Playing children splash through shallow open drains and their parents line up to siphon water out of a pipe. What right, I often wonder when I look out, do I have to demand more happiness when so many live in such poverty?
The book puts this question in interesting perspective. The first, and most significant, learning for me was this: Not only must you want to be happy but it is the very purpose of life. In other words, it is okay to be happy. It is okay to want to be happy. Don’t feel guilty about it.
The book then goes on to define happiness—making it ultimately a simpler concept than I thought it was. But achieving it, according to the Dalai Lama, was a process largely in my control, and in my heart and mind.
It was a hectic time at home. I had just a week left in Mumbai before a relocation to New Delhi and we still had to finalize our packers and movers, and even our flight tickets. At some point that evening, my wife got very upset when we got some quotes from the movers and she saw the expenses involved. I had just spent a long time ruminating over a piece of the Dalai Lama’s advice and, as cheesy as this sounds, it helped. See the bigger picture, I told her, see the long-term benefits of the move. The expenses are inevitable. We cannot reduce them by worrying about them.
After a day with the book, I had one more Tibetan thing I liked in addition to momos and MP3s of Buddhist chants.
• Key takeaways:
79 Want to be deliriously happy: it is the very purpose of life.
80 There are always reasons, mostly material, to be unhappy. Stop agonizing over them, especially when they are inevitable.
Day 3: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
This wasn’t exactly my first encounter with Peale’s best-selling classic book. After a tragedy in the family 18 years ago, kindly relatives had left several copies of the book lying around to help us cope. At the time I could hardly make sense of it. Doctor Who was better at keeping me happy back then.
So, I admit the book does not come with the best memories attached to it.
Speed reading it for the first time, however, I was immediately put off by the strongly religious nature of the text. The Dalai Lama in his book (see ‘Day 2’) refers to but never prescribes Buddhism. Peale, on the other hand, gushes forth on the power of religion, faith and God to secure happiness.
As a practising agnostic, this was a large elephant in the happiness room that I had to manoeuvre around.
The best parts of Peale’s book, according to me, come right at the beginning, when he advocates a sound sense of self-confidence. Fear of outcomes can be debilitating. Peale, albeit through some religious chanting, suggests that we stop making daily issues a question of life or death. Basically we need to stop taking decisions based on worst-case scenarios. I have a PhD in taking decisions based on worst-case scenarios. Peale made me stop and think for a second. Yes, it was obvious advice but this assignment made me pay more serious attention to it.
That evening, I picked up the manuscript of the book I’d been working on for six months and fired it off to a couple of publishers. I’d been petrified of rejection before. What if they hated it, laughed at it and…whatever else made up that worst-case scenario.
I haven’t received a rejection letter yet.
81 Make realistic estimates of your abilities. And set tough goals. Don’t prepare for the worst.
82 Wake up in the morning and decide to be happy. No, don’t think. Just decide.
Day 4: The Way of the Belly by Neena and Veena
• Happiness quotient:
If one’s belly has anything to do with happiness then I am a very, very happy man indeed. But alas, things aren’t that simple.
Neena and Veena are belly-dancing twin sisters—and engineering college fantasies—who intriguingly look more alike in the pictures in the book than they do on the DVD. But the Bellytwins, as they call themselves, recommend a strict diet, some mental conditioning and great belly dancing exercises to give every woman her dream body.
I admit, I have often dreamt of a woman’s body. But not in the way Neena and Veena mean. Within minutes of starting their book, it was clear that I would have to focus on some very specific parts of The Way of The Belly. The sections on sculpted abdomen and goddess-like busts would have to be skipped. The entire bit about belly dancing would receive only light glancing. I would focus on the mental conditioning and positive attitude bits.
The very fact that I have a book full of pictures of belly dancing twins made me very happy indeed. The accompanying DVD made me even happier. The cheesy lines the book was full of were pure ecstasy. Sample this:
“We’ll show you how to transform your look the Bellytwins way so that you can be your own ‘belly queen’ with bold colours and style through make-up, jewellery, and lots of fun and sexy sparkles!”
Explaining to the missus why I spent an entire day poring over Neena and Veena with undivided attention was not so cool.
The part of the book I really, really liked was the way the sisters want you to totally love the shape you are in right now. Yes, it’s a reiteration of Just Win Singh’s advice but these ladies in text and video are pretty convincing.
• Key takeaways:
83 No matter if you are a fat slob sculpted of cellulite, if Neena and Veena can, so can you.
84 Rip the DVD on to your iPod and carry with you for instant joy.
85 Use the term “belly queen” and drop it into daily conversation.
Day 5: Happiness For Two by Alexandra Stoddard
• Happiness quotient:
Before our marriage, two years ago, the missus and I were asked to attend a compulsory two-day pre-marriage counselling session by our parish priest. “No completion certificate, no wedding,” were his reasonable terms. Those two days were some of the most torturous we’ve ever spent together. Trainers droned on and on about love, children, childbirth (illustrated), in-law management and even financial planning. The only session we enjoyed was the one taken by a cheerful, long-married couple who gave us tips on fighting with each other effectively. “Don’t bottle up conflict. Let it out before it stinks up the relationship,” they said.
Stoddard’s book is full of such earthy advice that seldom filters through the mish-mash of home truths we’re fed by families. The book looked like any other fluffy relationship tome but most of its 75 tips “for finding joy together” I can vouch for.
Secret 51 came handy when I went home after an office going-away party and the missus was particularly pensive. We had exactly three nights left in Mumbai before relocating and I figured that something was bothering her. “Women like to talk things out” is the 51st secret. So, after a few minutes of prodding and coaxing, we had a conversation.
She expressed her fears about the move. She was a Delhi girl but she was afraid I wouldn’t like the city. She offered to call it off if I missed Mumbai too much. I reassured her that I was actually looking forward to the whole process and I always had a thing for the Delhi Metro, anyway.
It wasn’t rocket science. None of Stoddard’s tips are. But for couples, especially those who live far away from family and miss support systems, the book is a slim, readable collection of good advice.
And it’s much less pain than going through two-day marriage counselling workshops.
• Key takeaways:
86 Most things needed to keep a relationship happy are simple. Sometimes it’s just a question of listening, talking and reassuring.
87 Changing for the other person doesn’t end at the altar. It is a continuous process.
And the final verdict is.....
Stoddard’s and the Dalai Lama’s books are highly recommended. The first for its pithy relationship advice, and the second for its deep but accessible content.
And if those two don’t work, Neena and Veena can always be depended upon for a few quick doses of joy by the bellyful.