Coping with unpleasant news!

Last week when I finished writing about Happiness and the acronym PERMA, I truly did feel happy. If we look at the elements of PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning in life and Accomplishment) I felt that the writing exercise fulfilled almost all criteria for my happiness. So, I was happy and already thinking of what to write next week, till I got an extremely unexpected feedback to my Happiness blog. I quote the exact words, “Things like happiness and positive psychology have no meaning for me now. These words seem hollow to me. I have been diagnosed with cancer. My life will never be the same again, though I will survive.”

This response was from a wonderful friend. A person, from whom I have learnt many things and whom I consider one of the most positive, lively and sensitive human beings. My first reaction was that she was joking or it was perhaps a whatsapp forward which she had sent me. I called her and she did not respond but mercifully she replied my whatsapp messages and soon I had to accept that my dear friend had Cancer and she was soon to be operated upon. Suddenly I did not know what to say to this person. After this, since Tuesday through this week, my thoughts kept going back to what I can say to my friend and maybe many others like her. How does one help someone handle grief, frustration, the mood swings, the uncertainty, fear, loneliness etc that come with such bad news. I know that my friend, being the kind of person she is, will fight this battle, win it and come out a stronger person.

The first question here was, what do we say to a friend going through such trauma. Asking the person to stay positive is almost pointless because the person knows it but can’t. Showing a rosy picture and downplaying the negative possibilities does not cut much ice either.

American Cancer Society website has some sound advice on what to say and what not to say to a friend afflicted with cancer. is another website with some meaningful advice.

Some of the things that we can say, “ I want you to know that I care about you and am willing to help you. Let me know when I can be of help in some way. I do feel sorry that you are going through this. Anytime you want to talk about it, I am here , please tell me.”

It is important to respect the person’s privacy, not to push the person for more details unless she wants to talk about it. If the person talks about it, listen without being judgmental.

You could  research the disease to find out exactly what that person might be going through and how she might need help in future.

Support the person in whatever way you can but with her consent.

Cancer or some other dreaded disease is of course just one of the sad events that befall us. There can be many more equally challenging or traumatizing events in life. The irony is that people mostly come out stronger once they are through such trauma, provided that it does not break them. So how do we fight a negative event in life.

Viktor Emil Frankl (1905 –1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. When Viktor was in a concentration camp, he observed the behavior of the fellow prisoners and concluded many lessons which later proved to be the basis of his theory of Logotherapy and many books. His best-selling book was, “Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning”. It was earlier published in German language by a different title meaning (Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp). In this book Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning explores the sometimes unconscious human desire for inspiration or revelation, and illustrates how life can offer profound meaning at every turn.

So what does he say?  In a nutshell, 3 points;

  • People who have a strong reason to live will survive trauma better. So, when we are going through a traumatic life experience if we feel that our life has a meaning, a purpose, a goal we are more likely to come out of the experience alive and even stronger.
  • Whatever, happens to you is not in your control but how you mentally respond to it is completely in your control. This he calls the last freedom which no one can take away from you, that is how you allow yourself to be affected mentally by an event. So, it is not what life throws at you but how you deal with what life throws at you which is important, simply because you have no control over what life throws at you. When you can not change a situation, it is time to change yourself.
  • Suffering is a part of life and we have to learn to accept it as just that ( a part of life itself)

Reproduced below are some of the quotes by this great Scientist of human behavior.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be,complete.
Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
What do the scriptures say:

The Bhaghvad Gita has some interesting lessons on this subject of handling sadness, failure, hopelessness etc;

  • Life is a battlefield, you are here to fight. So you must fight with whatever might you have, irrespective of the result. For a cancer patient, who is uncertain of the result of treatment, it is important to remember that result is not in his control but to fight valiantly, as cheerfully as possible is.
  • Everything materialistic is perishable. Only the soul remains for ever. The human body is just like a home for the soul. The human body is made up of fire-water-air and earth, that is where it goes back again but the soul stays on and is not perished.
  • Lot of events come in contrasting pairs, Light-Darkness, Day-Night, Heat-cold, Joy-sorrow, calm-storm, high tide-low tide. We need to accept both with equanimity. We can not always choose to be only happy or to have only day and not night.
  • Effort never goes waste, you feel miserable only if you focus only on the end result of effort and only the end result motivates you. We must try to enjoy the journey, the battle, the effort and not just the result. Find contentment in the journey, where ever that takes us.
  • Everything happens for a purpose. Every event is a part of a great scheme of things which will unfold. We have to live our destiny

Tony Robbins, the famous motivational Guru says , “ Nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning you give it” , Which in a way is the same that Viktor Frankl says that it is your reaction that matters not what happens to you.

Robin Sharma too has written some interesting things on this subject. He in his characteristic practical style talks about how to turn a bad day into a good one. This is what he says;

  • Perspective: I think that only I am suffering till I see someone else suffering far more than me and suddenly my suffering seems more bearable. Howsoever bad my situation might be, the fact is that it could have been worse. It makes sense to remember that.
  • Looking for the positive part. In almost every miserable situation there might be an opportunity , a positive side to
  • Physical exercise: Helps the body release helpful hormones Dopamine-Serotonin and makes us feel better. Go get some exercise, Gym, swim, cycle, run whatever.
  • Write your feelings. Many times when we feel very down, very miserable and we do not want to talk to anyone, taking a blank page and simply writing the feelings can help.
  • Going out in the nature. Maybe a park, maybe a forest, a riverside or seashore, a mountain. It heals.

Lastly, how do I feel about it?

I think we must remember that in comparison to the universe we are small micro particles. If we are so small, how  can our sorrow be so big.?We may be small but we are not in-significant. Just like, even a small nail or bolt is an important part of a huge machine, so is each living being every micro-organism created with a purpose. The purpose is not known to us but we have to simply live it.

Change what we can but accept what we can’t.

When we were born we did not choose our parents, our heart, our nose, our hair and we made peace with it more or less. We accepted it. Which means that a system created us in a particular way. Now, if that same system is taking our lives in a particular direction why should we complain.  We have no option but to accept life as it unfolds. We may call it luck, destiny, God’s will or a mathematical probability but the fact is that we have no control over it and the only way is to accept it and live on. Keep the desire to live alive and remain as happy as possible.

Happiness- Can we chase it.

For the last few years, around my birthday, I have been going for a short holiday with my daughter . Without our realizing it, and unintentionally, it has become a quiet ritual. For me, it is  a great way of celebrating my birthday.

Last time, as we sat on a rock somewhere in the wilderness, the talk went to ,” What do you think is the meaning of life, I mean why are we born?” We had lots of discussion and ultimately we left it for some other day, because the discussion was going every which way and nowhere. Some things on which we agreed was that life is like a journey, we are part of a big ecosystem in which every person every particle, every insect has a purpose just like every part of a machine has a role to play in the running of the machine. Another thing that we sort of agreed upon was that while we are going through the journey  of life our goal should be to be happy as far as possible, as often as possible. By the way, I am not sure whether we had this conversation in real life or in my dream that day, but we had it and next day morning I did start the conversation (this time definitely real) again with a question.

“Are you happy?” I asked her.  “Are you?” She shot back without answering my question. I said Yes. She asked ,” What makes you so sure and how do you define happiness?” I started searching for the answer. Suddenly I realized that it was not such a simple question and the answer could not possibly be a one word Yes or No. Is the absence of sorrow equal to happiness? How can that be? We could not come to a conclusion or agreement about how to define happiness, so we let  it go and went on with our day’s routine. The thought lingered and after we returned home, I began to study the subject of happiness.

I went through many articles, Ted talks and discussions with some friends. In the process I stumbled upon some great books and a lot of research done on this subject. The thoughts and theories that appealed to me the most were by Dr. Martin Seligman. Positive psychology is a subject almost invented by Dr. Seligman. Most psychologists and theories are about reducing the misery of depression not about creating happiness but making the sadness tolerable. He is a pioneer in this field and has done a  lot of work to change mindsets about happiness. He brought this rather revolutionary concept that happiness could actually be measured and relative scores could be assigned. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder and Director of Center for Positive Psychology University of Pennsylvania USA says that Optimism can be learnt, cultivated and depressed people don’t have to focus on reducing the negative impact of their situation but have a right to create happy lives. That is what defines Positive Psychology. Two of Dr. Martin Seligman’s books, Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism made wonderful reading and led to a lot more thinking, deliberations and discussions on the subject of happiness. I would suggest that people should read at least one of the two books, Authentic Happiness if you have to read only one. If you are interested you can listen to one of the TED talks Martin has given on this subject (see bottom of this article) or the numerous videos available on Youtube. You also can visit his website at UPenn.

There are many others working and talking about this subject. Interestingly Bhutan is a country that measures the Happiness level of their citizens rather than just their wealth.  Gross National happiness Index (also known by the acronym: GNH) is a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. It includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population. Gross National Happiness is instituted as the goal of the government of Bhutan in the Constitution of Bhutan, enacted in 2008.

The term Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 during an interview by a British journalist for the Financial Times at Bombay airport when the then king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

In 2011, The UN General Assembly passed Resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and measure happiness and well-being and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.”

When David Cameron was the PM of England he decided to create a full fledged system of measuring the happiness of his citizens and decided to hold himself responsible for this score. Now of course England and many other countries have a ministry of Happiness. The subject is immensely interesting and amount of material available for consumption is huge.

The theory that Dr. Seligman talks about in Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness is vast but he has created a rather catchy acronym, PERMA, to define the crux of his theory. For the limited time and space here I would like to just reproduce the essence of what Dr. Martin Seligman says in this lovely acronym PERMA, sounds somewhat similar to KARMA but has nothing to do with Hindu philosophy.

P: Positive Emotions.

This could be translated simply (too simplistic probably) as Optimism. When something good happens to us, some of us make sure that we think that we did it and take credit for it, thus boosting our public image and self-confidence. However, there are many people who refuse to give themselves the credit and feel that it was some stroke of good luck or some help from someone and that next time in a similar situation they won’t be able to do so well. The same thing happens when things go wrong, the former avoids taking full blame on himself and looks forward to doing better next time while the latter sees it as his personal failure, a permanent and dreads the event next time.

The ideal of course would be if both were very objective and went by logical analysis. The fact however is that we are not always logical and the mind takes its own decisions as per the way it is programmed which is different for different people.

Looking at things optimistically, recognizing self for the good results, not taking failure as personal or permanent. Thinking of failure as temporary and looking forward to the next event with optimism is the meaning of Positive Emotion as far as I could understand it.

The words that you choose create a huge impact on your emotional state and that of those around you. There is a credible and tested system of assessing the health of corporates where in the analysts simple listen to all the words spoken during a meeting of the company’s managers. There is a scientific scoring system which predicts the future of the company based on just the words used by the Managers. Marriage counselors too record the words used by a couple in a 24 Hour period and based on that they predict the likelihood of divorce in the couple.

So, to summarize, looking at events optimistically, using positive words to describe events- optimistic language defines Positive Emotions the P of PERMA.

E: Engagement- Being with the flow.

This is a very important part of the whole theory and has been talked about by many others in different words or context. Doing more of what you enjoy doing. Enjoying more of what you are doing. Being one with the music. Discovering what you are good at and doing more of that thing. The message is simple, you are born with certain traits, in your early life you picked up certain traits and as a result you are good at some things and not so good at some things. Doing more of what you are good at is what gives you authentic Joy and Happiness.

It is not difficult to find our strengths and what we really like doing. Dr. Seligman still helps you here. On his website you find many free tests, one of them is the strength finder. It is a free test and millions of people have taken it. The test tells you about your core values or virtues.

Dr. Seligman divides core virtues in 6 broad categories and 24 sub categories. Through the test or otherwise you can understand what are you really good at. These are the values which make us happy but no one can probably have all of them in equal measure, so we need to discover where we are strong. I will quickly list the 6 core values and the usual behaviors or sub-virtues attached with each virtue.

The 6 Core Virtues defined in Martin’s book are;


Social Intelligence, Curiosity, Perspective, Love of Learning, Street Smartness.


Perseverance, Honesty, Bravery.


Kindness, Generosity, Loving, Giving without expecting back.


Fairness, Loyalty, Leadership.


Self-control, Caution, Modesty.


Enthusiasm, forgiveness, Appreciation, Faith, Humor, Gratitude.

Once you are clear about your own top 5 virtues, you need to apply more and more of them in your daily life maybe at work at home with friends.

R: Relationships

Relationships are of course an important part of being happy. Need to invest in building long-term relationships based  on Trust, understanding and empathy.

M: Meaning:

A purpose in life. Howsoever big, rich, successful or important we might become, we are acutely aware of the insignificance of one person in relation to the billions of people, planets and other  things in the universe. So, we will get more deep happiness if we see our life as contributing to the world in some way. It may be a very small contribution but how is my work or life of some significance to my society, country or the world. If we are able to see a link there between what we do and the world in which we live, it brings us immense joy and satisfaction.

A: Accomplishment.

We all need the reassurance that we have achieved some milestones on the way. The journey of life will go on but important milestones like marriage, a new bigger car or home, a pay hike, a recognition as an award, learning something new. All these give us a sense of accomplishment and that leads to happiness.

So, let’s all follow PERMA, make it our KARMA and be HAPPY.

Dr. Seligman’s Ted Talk:

Stereotypes and Leaders.

The other day I was reading about a successful startup company’s journey and the CEO recalled that when he and his partners pitched for funds with VCs, the stock response they heard repeatedly was “How can you guys run a company , you are a bunch of introverts.” That brings two rather diverse thoughts to my mind, one, how do we decide in such a short meeting that a person is introvert, a weak leader, etc. etc., and two, do only extroverts succeed as leaders?

First about the Prejudiced eye:
Various societies have such strong pre-conceived notions linking age, looks, gender with expected behavior. This strict compartmentalization of traits is almost pathological if we think of management and leadership. If you wear spectacles you are viewed as academically good but athletically weak which quickly gets translated to introvert and extrovert. Men in general and men with mustaches in particular are seen as tougher than women. If you wear a dark color like red or black you are seen as aggressive otherwise you are seen as less assertive. These prejudices are almost universally prevalent, however in addition to this there are more prejudices to be seen which are country specific or society specific. In India for example if you tell only your first name, the other person will insist on hearing your surname more often than not. As soon as you tell your surname the other person starts connecting the dots of your region, caste, religion and creates a profile of your expected behaviors. Tamils and Bengalis are seen as intelligent but argumentative, Punjabis are seen as aggressive and the list goes on and on. Even though it is very clear that such compartmentalization is absolutely inaccurate and unnecessary, yet it continues to live on. Many careers are nipped in the bud because of such prejudices; many times decisions in interviews are taken even before the person has spoken a single word. I have personally faced and been at the receiving end of such discrimination. I have seen people judge me not on the basis of the results I generated or the behaviors I exhibited but by the first impressions I created on them which was based mainly on my regional identity and my overall look.

To an extent it is inevitable that we program our minds to connect certain behaviors with certain races or types of people. This is definitely a hurdle to better Management and leadership and we must watch out against it.

Many Western countries have enacted elaborate and strict laws to discourage any discrimination on the basis of region, religion, sex and even age. This, even though not working completely, is helping them create a more equitable and competency based work environment.

That brings me to the second thought — do only aggressive managers succeed? Well, research does support the hypothesis that outgoing people, extroverts, make better managers. However this was more relevant when Management essentially meant getting maximum productivity from an underpaid, ill educated workforce working mechanically, and the output being directly proportional to the physical effort done. Things have changed. Recent research has shown that when the workers are well-informed and proactive it is the soft spoken, high on listening manager who gets better results. The same study also concludes that the dominating , aggressive leader feels threatened when the people he leads are pro-active.

If we look into the past, we can see that leaders as diverse as Gandhi and Steve Jobs , both have succeeded in their own ways. There are hundreds of examples of mild, soft spoken leaders doing very well as well as failing and the same is true with aggressive dominating leaders. No strict rules can really be laid therefore.

The traits of being able to create a compelling vision and making people want to exert to move towards that vision is what makes a great leader. The need is to look at behaviors, traits and not allow the vision to be clouded by race, color, gender, etc.