Of Domesticated Humans and Extinction of Happiness

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The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves.

~Arnold J. Toynbee

In my myriad musings on the tangled maze of information called internet, I chanced across a term – enculturation. Dictionary.com defines it as “the process whereby individuals learn their group’s culture, through experience, observation, and instruction.” On thinking about its meaning the word domestication sprang to my mind. I don’t know why, but in an abstract way both the words seemed synonymous to me. When you think about it they do have similarities. Culture is a function of society, i.e., it is the way we talk and behave in presence of other people. Domestication applies specifically to animals, but is basically the same thing. Modifying natural behavior to make them more suitable to live in close contact with human beings. Of course, anyone can argue about the various differences, but it is the essence of their meanings that I believe is similar.

I came across the word enculturation while exploring the reason why most of the people in this world lead dissatisfied and unfulfilled lives. Why is it that inspite of achieving and earning all that the world says are the constituents of success, do so many people feel lost and frustrated? What are the secrets of passion and happiness? It is in answering these questions that one can see a darker side to enculturation. The weirdest thing is that it is a behind-the-scenes process. Even if someone pointed it out to you, you wouldn’t understand the significance. It is like someone telling you why the sky is blue. It might be interesting to know, but you can’t do anything to influence it. You’d be like, “Um, yeah. So?” So, it is very hard to counteract the effects of enculturation. It is something that exists as matter-of-fact in the world around you. And why would you want to resist enculturation? The simple answer is to find genuine happiness. But, I’ll go into a little more detail about the specific aspects that lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction..

Success

No one does anything without wanting to succeed. I know about treating failures as learning opportunities, dealing with failure etc. But, ultimately everyone wants to succeed. If everyone wants to succeed then they obviously know what success is. Do they really though? If you take the sheer number of people in this world and list the factors that the successful ones have in common, there are only so many things you can come up with – money, educational qualification, professional reputation, etc. This distillation of factors would have taken place a long time ago, repeated over time, and has now found its way into the unconscious association of success with those factors. There is a probability that some things like happiness and family life might have found its way into that list, but it runs across another major barrier – how do you measure it? It isn’t hard to imagine then why only the measurable ones made the cut. Thus, the more you have of the measurable common factors – money, qualification, titles – the more successful you are. That’s like saying the more air you breathe and more water you drink, the better human being you are – totally absurd. This is enculturation – a fact that is so deeply embedded in everybody’s mind that it doesn’t even raise a question. Add to that the effect of repetition that has taken place over generations, not to mention that all successful people do actually possess money & fame. You can see now how you could get drawn into believing that those material gains will somehow total up to success. Those of you who find yourselves at the juncture of having all those ingredients, but still feel that there’s something missing; you know better than to believe in society’s definition of success.

Work on your weakness

Call it a cultural quirk, if you will. We are all encouraged to work hard to improve in areas that are difficult for us or we lag behind in, and discouraged from putting more effort into the things that come easy to us. You’ve got a good forehand, you should work on your backhand. You’ve got great presentation skills, you should work on your content. Your programming skills are excellent, you should work more on your people skills. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t take care of your weak points. For e.g, if you are failing in maths at school you should at least get to a point where you don’t fail. But, putting extra effort beyond that only to be able to gain a few more marks doesn’t make any sense. Especially when you could be putting those extra hours into say, History, which you might find enjoyable. I am sure if you did that you’d be acing History. A belief has seeped into our society that if it’s easy then it is not worth doing or if the problem is big and complex the solution can’t be simple and easy. It is not the way nature functions. Do you see cheetahs swimming? or, a rose shrub growing fruits? or, water flowing uphill? No, because that is not their natural state of being. Just because human beings can do things which don’t come to them naturally doesn’t mean we should do so while ignoring that which comes naturally to us. Odds are that if it is easy for you then you also enjoy doing it (or is it the other way round?) Again, enculturation has ensured that we neglect our natural strengths and build on our weaknesses. I know I have made a few decisions in life based on this belief, like choosing my engineering discipline. Years later, I find that I am still interested in the things which I chose not to study, whereas the years that I have spent in my discipline – bah! I guess it has something to do with our obsession with perfection. But, no matter how this belief got ingrained in our mindsets it is becoming a source of unfulfillment. How many of you enjoy spending hours on presentations or spreadsheets? And how much better do you feel after your boss tells you it still needs work? The solution is simple – shore up your weaknesses so that they do not limit you, and then supercharge your strengths. The application of it, that’s the hard part.

Being busy

This one is close to my heart. As I am sure it would be to anyone who has worked in the corporate sector and felt like banging their heads in frustration against their computer terminals. Corporations pay their employees for ass-in-the-chair time (I don’t remember where I heard this phrase, but I love using it every chance I get). Working in such an organisation for 4 years and having talked to hundreds of people has proven this fact. I am not saying that people do not work, rather you can get paid and have job security just by showing up at office. But appearances also matter, so instead of seeing employees just sitting around doing nothing, managers suffer under the illusion that keeping people busy is somehow better. Thus, they love to use the word multitasking (probably the reason I have come to intensely dislike it). I challenge you to make coffee, toast, and omelette on a one burner stove at the same time or by switching between them. I don’t know, you might be super talented at doing that, but I do know that most people would prefer to eat a breakfast that has been prepared with the intention of making breakfast not getting the most out of the gas or creating perfect time-boxing. However, this is exactly what happens in the big corporations. People are usually handling 3 or 4 unrelated work assignments simultaneously, switching between them depending upon which presentation the higher ups want to see ‘on an urgent basis’. What they don’t tell you is that single minded focus is the key to meaningful work. When you focus on one task, especially one that you are really interested in, you have greater chances of getting into the state of flow. And that is where the real sense of achievement and fulfillment lies.

There are other aspects of happiness and fulfillment that enculturation has pushed below our radar, but these are ones that have a big impact. More importantly, these are under your direct control. Instead of following the formula,  ‘X amount of money p.a. = success’, you can try something like ‘Daily 2 hours of meaningful time with family = success’. Make up your own rules for success and you will be happier. Reserve a few hours per week to do something not to get results, but simply because you enjoy doing it. Anything goes – sketching, reading comics, browsing holiday destinations. Remember, while you are spending time with your family or during your hobby hour, do not keep checking your mails, messages, and status updates. The purpose is not to accomplish as much as possible in a fixed time; it is to help you to learn to take a pause and be able to enjoy it.

You are not a cow whose worth is measured in how many liters of milk you produce. You are a human being and it is your responsibility to think of yourself as one. Unless you believe in it and be true to yourself, whatever you do you will always find that cowbell around your neck going “ding, ding, ding.”

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4 thoughts on “Of Domesticated Humans and Extinction of Happiness

  1. I completely agree with redefining success. As you suggest, it is a daily practice, and one best undertaken without the distractions of media and comparisons. I love that you mention flow, which indeed is the bedrock of lasting “happiness” (a word that is all-too-often poorly understood or defined). The biggest challenge, I believe, is how to get corporations on board with these notions. It would benefit all if organizations – and not just a few individuals within them – were on board with the notions you mention.

    • I don’t know if big organizations are built to fit into this mode of working. Just like we are slowly realizing that our formal education system is severely flawed, I believe that this ginormous organizations are also very close to becoming living dinosaurs.

  2. Regarding the multitasking part, people need to realize that it comes with a huge cost of context switching. More so, with tasks like programming. If you are focused and are in a state of “flow”, you can get a lot more work done in an hour than when you multi-task for 6 hours.

    Also loved the part about supercharging your strengths. Great teams are not made up of people moderately good in all areas. They are made up of people with huge strengths in specific areas.

    • Well said. I was actually going to use “time sharing” in the post until I remembered it is purely technical term. But, the surprising thing is every time I come across stuff like this I’m like “Why weren’t we taught this in our 18 years of education?”

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