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self help

Emotional Wealth in Times of Economic Depression

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To flourish is an act and not a state. This act is choice-worthy in its own right (Aristotle).

This means that flourishing is not exclusively dependent on a circumstance (rich/poor, lockdown/no lockdown, healthy/sick), but rather a state of mind, no matter the circumstance. A living example for me was my grandmother. She had a rudimentary education, an alcoholic husband, a son with a schizoaffective disorder, and limited financial resources. She eventually went blind – plenty of reasons not to be happy. Yet she flourished.

Despite their poor circumstances, Why do some people display such high self-esteem, vitality, determination, optimism, an interest in life and politics, and a constant active engagement with people? These are the questions that motivated my PhD research in the Netherlands. I spent several thousand hours interviewing young and poor Indian children trying to understand how they develop physically and psychologically when the odds were stacked against them. The lockdown gave me an opportunity to revisit some of the interviews I had marked as “unique” because I was amazed at the durability and buoyancy I heard from these young voices.

One of those interviews was with a teenage girl who had woken up at 5 am that morning to cook and feed her younger siblings, and then carry the day’s water supply from a distant pipeline. This was after spending a restless night in her family’s make-shift hut, which had been inundated with water after a heavy rain. When I met her at noon, she had just trotted into school and was in visibly good spirits. Her interview suggested she was very well aware of her predicament, but had chosen “self-sufficiency for its own sake.” She felt happy about the fact that she dealt efficiently with whatever were her circumstances and had made the best of what she had. She was unable to do some chores, and this, too, did not bother her. In her words, “It is what it is. I did what I could, and then I stopped.”

Aaji and me (2019)
A living example for me was my grandmother. She had a rudimentary education, an alcoholic husband, a son with a schizoaffective disorder, and limited financial resources. She eventually went blind – plenty of reasons not to be happy. Yet she flourished.

Could it really be that elementary?

When Artistotle wrote of self-sufficiency, he did not refer to it as an economic notion i.e. It was not economic independence but rather a “feeling of fulfilment” that he spoke of. Today, a majority of the world is in economic despair and we are giving up our fixation on “the good lifestyle” in exchange for the more basic requirements. We are bombarded with news of constant death and debt. Doom, doom, and more doom. But we have a psychological choice we can make even in these shitty circumstances: Should we languish or flourish? Psychologist BJ Fowers states that when we find meaning and purpose in whatever activity we undertake, we already make the choice to flourish. Finding purpose in the mundane is not a one-time choice, but a moment-to-moment choice pattern. The “growth” that you see when you make this investment cannot be physically measured. Like the girl in my interview, emotional and spiritual outcomes contribute to your resilience, well-being, happiness, your “quality of life,” the thing that all of us are pursuing.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor witnessed the death of his unborn child, wife, mother, father and brother in concentration camps, and went on to live a fulfilling life. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) he wrote “A human being is a deciding being,” and so …

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.

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