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Ketaki Desai Headshot

How to Be Happy: Existential Angst

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About a year ago, I led a team that won a million dollar international case challenge; we proposed a new business model to integrate 21st century technology with current educational methods. We never got the seed capital that we were promised for funding our idea, so we tried to bootstrap; and when that didn't work we tried working as volunteers. Finally, after a year of trying, we decided to dissolve our company and I moved on -- to another city. Was it exceptionally frustrating? Yes, of course! Was it something that I expected to happen? Definitely not! But, here's the thing, once you decide to roll with the punches, and treat everything like a learning lesson (instead of a failure), life gets happier. And I should know; I have learned to deal with the punches since I was a kid.

About 11 years ago, I came to the United States with a dream in my mind and wonder in my eyes. This is where I had always wanted to be. Growing up was a roller coaster ride; my little brother and I went from one school to another in India and the Middle East, back and forth. Finally, we decided to settle down when I reached high school -- primarily because my dad's alcoholism took the better of him and his job. My mother found a job as a lower-middle school teacher, and made about a dollar a day. It was a hard life but we got through it just fine. More than half of India lives in this economic strata and they survived, and so could we. However, it was my brother's untimely death that pushed my family past the brink of sanity; he would have turned 16 in less than two months. The alcoholism got worse, but I could not fault my dad, that was probably his only way to deal with the pain.

Meanwhile, I was preparing hard, to get the grades I needed to make my way to the U.S. for a master's degree, and to get the scholarships that would fund my dream. Mom and dad were always there for moral support, that was all they could provide and they did a heck of a job at it! That, and running around for the innumerable applications: scholarship, university, visa, you name it. Things seemed like they weren't looking so bad when I got my first admit to the Texas A&M University. My dad, however, was too inebriated to even say goodbye when I finally left. And that was the last time I saw my mom and dad, together. The divorce came soon after and it completely destroyed my father. I could not fault my mother. She desperately needed a life.

At school, I did quite alright; a newly hired professor liked my work and took me under his tutelage as a Ph.D. student. Life outside of school was filled with friendships and love, but my dad's loneliness always loomed over me like dark clouds, always threatening to burst wide open as I struggled on without an umbrella. Soon after completing my school, I moved onto another city for a post-doctoral position, and into another person's heart for a position of a lifetime. We decided to get married, and I started getting a hang of what a "secure" future might look like. Mom and dad visited, separately, of course. But I was happier than I had ever felt before. And then just like that, in a heartbeat, my dad left this world and left me lonelier than he would have ever imagined.

Since then, I wrote a blog with thousands of hits, ran a half-marathon for charity, hiked the Inca Trail, went back to school to get a masters, got a fellowship to intern at the UNICEF, won a global case challenge, met President Clinton, was interviewed via Skype for an Indian news channel, had my picture plastered in several local and international newspapers and, just recently, presided over a very successful TEDx event. I have a ton of friends all across the world, most of whom I share extremely gratifying relationships with. My inner circle consists of three people -- my husband, mother, and grandmother -- all of whom care for me greatly, and I continue to be head-over-heels in love with my soul mate. I also live in New York and am working on the project of my dreams, which involves technology and education. So, am I happy? You bet I am! I have made my way to where I want to be, and taking baby steps at that, from a place where no one could have even imagined me to do so. And today, I am living the fast life -- traveling to great places for work and leisure, eating cuisines I could have only dreamed of, shopping whenever my heart desires (which is actually not as often as I would have imagined) and having access to every possible material good there is.

So what exactly is my existential angst? Whenever I read about the rest of the world, and I know about most of what is out there because I have lived it, my heart cries a little. I am extremely grateful for everything I achieved, and I know I could not have done it without the help of all those around me, but I also know that everyone cannot possibly get an opportunity to get a better deal from the cards that have been already dealt. And, I don't want to, at least yet, give up on a life that I could have just dreamed about. So the angst is what is internally pulling me apart -- on one side there is this incredible life that I worked my entire being towards, going against the tide and often times the disapproving eye of my society, and on the other is the knowledge that I can do something to make the lives of people, who do not share my fortune, better.

Most people I know try to do their part in getting over their own angst: donating for causes they are passionate about, taking trips to parts of the world that need a caring hand, giving up on creature comforts, etc. And the people I talk about are the regular kind -- people with jobs and a family, people who pay mortgages, and have car loans; people who can't exactly quit everything they have and go to Tibet, for instance. But I always notice that most people are not completely happy with their lives, despite everything they have been able to build for themselves. Something is always inadequate -- either it's a job, a relationship, or lack of sleep because of a newborn, a house that's too small, or a car too slow, the dress is too tight or food that's not just right, all of which are valid reasons for frustration. And then there are those few I have been fortunate to interact with, those who seem genuinely happy, rolling with the punches life's throwing at them. People who take setbacks like the changing seasons, once too cold and frigid will soon change to glorious warmth and sunshine.

And then, it came to me -- the reason for my frustration. I want people, including myself, to be happy! I want everyone around me to realize that there is so much more good than bad, so much more to be thankful for than not, and so much more happiness, if we only knew where to look for it. The I-don't-care-what-today-might-bring-but-I-will-be-happy happy, the stop-and-look-at-how-far-you-have-come-in-the-last-ten-years happy, and the I-am-so-grateful-I-have-a-healthy-body happy! If everyone is aiming towards happiness as a state of being, and feels grateful about a tremendously fortunate life, then there will be a higher understanding of the misfortunes of others. We, as human beings, are inherently destructive and sadistic (if you don't believe me just read the news), so a state of contention with self is something that has to be actually practiced to achieve. And by happy or content, I don't mean that one can never feel any other sentiment. It is just the ability to step out of a debilitating emotional state into a state of understanding that one can deal with.

And how can we do that? Let's start simple. Let's make a list of all the things in our life that we are grateful for, and a list of our passions -- things that we would do if there was nothing else to do. And then let's try to figure out a life that allows us to do those things for as long as is humanly and practically possible. It could be for only a few minutes every day, or a few hours every week! It could be anything that brings to closer to yourself but you never seem to have the time for; a book you always wanted to read (even if it's a few lines a time), a painting you've always imagined you'd make (even a postcard sized one), dancing a few steps that take your breath away, talking to a close friend from a lifetime ago, a ride on the bus with nowhere to go, a chance to pet a dog on the street, a smile to everyone you meet in the morning, or the evening, one cup of delightfully brewed coffee, a long soak in the bathtub, buying a bunch of flowers for your living room, or a tune that you heard when you were little. It could be anything and it doesn't have to cost much.

And it should make you so completely happy that you forget about everything unhappy in your life, even if it's only for that moment! Once you find that thing, or things, practice it. And be sure to revel in that happiness, take it all in. Let your body and your mind swim with glorious delight in the heartwarming ripples it creates. And then replicate it whenever you get a chance. I promise you will feel a lot lighter than you have felt before, and much better than any expensive vacation or massage you could have taken. And if you are unable to find what works for you, ask those near and dear to you, like your mom or your best friend -- they will know. And then one day maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to stop worrying about the shortcomings of our own lives, and start thinking about those of who really need our attention. But until then, let's give our souls a little bit of what they have so longed for!