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Finding Happiness and Meaning in the Time of COVID-19

https://uef.medium.com/

The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to hit the pause button on our regular lives. In the process, we have been given the rare and unexpected gift of time free from the compulsive activities that drive so many of us. There is no roadmap to navigate this new normal. We are all responding differently based on our circumstances. For me, it has been an opportunity to fully engage in what I call LLP: Love, Learn, Play. It’s a mindset I have been cultivating with growing conviction for several years. It is a simple but powerful framework that I apply to my daily activities, to my relationships and to my work. It helps me find happiness, meaning, purpose and a sense of wellbeing. I believe it can do the same for most of you, no matter who you are, what religion you practice, and what your circumstances are.

Like most people, my life today doesn’t look anything like it did before the lockdown. Having retired five years ago from a demanding business career, I typically divide my time between the United States and India, where I was born and raised. I spend six weeks in New York and four in Mumbai visiting with my eighty-five-year-old mother and eighty-nine-year-old father. I arrived in Mumbai this past February, when news of the virus was just beginning to percolate, intending to return to New York in late March. But more than two months have passed and counting, and I’m still in Mumbai confined to my apartment. It’s the longest I’ve stayed in any one city in more than thirty years.

I’ve spent this unexpected time in an even more unexpected way, nursing my mother who can’t stand or walk due to a fractured knee. Because of the lockdown, she is not allowed to go to the hospital; her therapist is not allowed to visit our home, so I give her cold packs and hot packs three times a day. I massage her sore muscles twice a day and carry her from room to room. When she goes to the toilet, I stand by her side. I look after my dad too, monitoring his blood pressure and vertigo and keep an eye on his diet. Both Mom and Dad have poor short-term memory, so I need to monitor their medications. In the absence of household help, I shop for vegetables, fruit and other necessities.

In the evenings after dinner, I play a card game with my parents. The three of us watch television shows on science, philosophy and religion. We also watch a Bollywood movie every other day. I have no interest in many of these programs, but keep my parents company. Thanks to the lack of distraction, my dad and I have deep conversations. We talk about God and the meaning of life and I learn from his immense wisdom acquired over nine decades. On Saturdays, I Zoom with twenty other family members, ages two to eighty-nine, fifteen of whom are in the U.S. We share our news, and my nieces and nephew entertain us with their musical talents. The kids show us their artwork. These moments of togetherness are precious for all of us and we are recording all of it to build memories for the future.

In India, the chores I now perform daily are traditionally considered to be beneath a male. My siblings are shocked by my nursing and shopping routine. I am surprised too that not only do I feel peace in this unexpected role, but part of me likes my new life. My parents and I haven’t spent this much time together since I left home fifty years ago. In quiet interludes, we reminisce over fond childhood memories. On reflection, I realize my happiest days were when I was a child growing up with my parents, four siblings, grandmother and aunt, living on one hundred dollars a month. We were a close-knit family who loved and cared for each other. We played together a lot and we read a lot. We lived authentically, without worrying about what anybody thought of us. It was a fulfilling childhood with lots of loving, learning and playing.

For a child born in Chandni Chowk in the heart of Old Delhi, I’ve had a wonderfully successful life both socially and materially. I earned my undergraduate degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, India’s equivalent of MIT, and stood out first in my class. After graduating, I landed a coveted job with Unilever. I went on to study at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The only other Indian in my class was Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, who I was lucky to work with in his company, Reliance Industries (now India’s largest company), after I returned to India. After leaving Reliance, I worked at The Blackstone Group, another iconic organization.

I had reached my professional pinnacle — I joined as a partner in the most prestigious private equity firm in the world and served as Chairman of Blackstone India. After six years at Blackstone, I started to feel, in Aldous Huxley’s words, “There comes a time, when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?” I am far from being either, but I consider myself enormously lucky to have achieved so much coming from a humble background. I had reached that critical juncture in life when things I had been subconsciously driven to — success, fame, wealth, access to the rich, famous and powerful, flying private, staying in presidential suites — had lost their charm. I wondered if life had something more to offer. I found myself constantly asking, “Is this all?”

After retirement, I spent a five-year sabbatical at Harvard immersing myself deeply and broadly in the work of philosophers, the findings of science and psychology and the wisdom of thinkers and prophets from different cultures and traditions in an attempt to address the existential and essential questions to find meaning. As I distilled and synthesized this rich and complex tapestry of approaches, the LLP framework emerged. I realized that my deepest longings all along were those that were with me in childhood: Love, Learn and Play. These came to me spontaneously. I was not consciously engaging in LLP.

When I began working, I approached my social roles and responsibilities with a sense of duty. I experienced lots of satisfaction through my achievements. In addition, I was rewarded with wealth, power and fame. However, I also had a sense that something was missing, like sugar in an otherwise excellent dessert. On reflection while at Harvard, I became conscious of the means-ends–inversion phenomenon. In our highly materialistic and competitive world, my duties were crowding out my longings for LLP. I had confused power, fame and wealth with life’s ultimate ends, rather than viewing them as means toward love, learning and play as I believe they should be for me and for everyone.

In the midst of this lockdown, I approach my circumstances with the LLP mindset. I have discovered or I should say rediscovered Love, Learn, Play as my mantra. My new chores are performed as an expression of love for my parents. The ancient Greeks in their wisdom called this kind of love storge, the enduring love shared by parents and children. How lucky for all of us that I was with them when the lockdown began. They’ve had the help they so needed and I’ve had the chance to be of service, offering myself without expecting anything in return, which is the very definition of love.

I bring learning into my life through voracious reading, perusing the three hundred titles on my Kindle, more than ten online publications covering economics, politics, science, psychology and religion, and distribute selected articles to fifty of my friends and family. I revel in the pleasure of encountering ideas and realities beyond my own. For the first time in a while, I’ve even indulged in fiction, catching up at long last with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. By satiating the natural desire to learn, I open my mind and find meaning in this increasingly complex world.

We set aside time for play as a family, enjoying our evening card game for the pure fun of it. All humans are biologically wired for lifelong play and these small moments pursuing an activity for its own sake with no utility beyond enjoyment inject vitality and happiness into our daily routine. “It is common consensus that kids need to play. However, the balanced adult life needs sufficient amounts of our preferred modes of play to keep us optimistic and better able to deal with life’s real demands,” says Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play.

The sense of peace and wellbeing the LLP mindset gives me has attuned me to the small pleasures life offers up even in a crisis like this one. I am counting our new blessings — for the first time in memory, we’re breathing clean air, enjoying sparkling blue skies and hearing birdsong in Mumbai. One day as I was sitting on my balcony with my mom, enjoying these rare privileges, she brightened at hearing a nightingale sing and asked me to fetch her harmonium. She played “The Song of the Nightingale,” which she had taught me and my siblings as children. I have newfound appreciation for moments like these. Fresh air, sunshine and music are surprising benefits in these unprecedented times.

COVID-19 has brought the LLP framework that I stumbled on into full focus, in the way only a life-or-death crisis could. It was another such crisis, the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed almost 200 people, which I escaped by five minutes thanks only to a last-minute change of plans (which I almost never do), that made me feel as if I had a new lease on life. It made me start asking more frequently: “What matters most?” This virus is yet another stark reminder of the harsh truth that life is fragile and we should focus on what matters most. It has lifted the social veil of who we think we are and revealed our deeper, more authentic layers. We can no longer think of ourselves as masters, but only as stewards. We do not get to choose how much time we have on earth; we can only choose how to spend it. I encourage everyone to spend it loving, learning and playing. Adopt LLP as your mantra too, now during the lockdown and when this crisis ends, and it will end. Do whatever you do with an LLP mindset. It is compatible with all religions and worldviews and can only enhance your experience.

For more about LLP, read our other blog articles here or visit us at https://medium.com/@universalenlightenmentforum

Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment & Flourishing. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. He is at work on two books: one on Human Flourishing, and another on common themes across religions.

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