In good times and bad

उदेति सविता ताम्रस्ताम्र एवास्तमेतिच। 

सम्पतौ च विपत्तौ च महतामेकरूपता॥

udeti savitā tāmras tāmra evāstameti ca | 

saṃpattau ca vipattau ca mahatāmekarūpatā ||

Kavya Prakash 7.245

The Sun is red at the time of rising, and red at the time of setting too. Likewise, great men remain alike in both good times and bad times.

In his book ‘ The Brain at Work’, David Roth says that “maintaining the right expectation in life may be central for maintaining a general feeling of happiness and well being”. He also states that “when you set a goal, you make a decision that an end result is of value. As you think about this goal, or work towards it, you increase the expectations of a reward.”

Professor Robert Coghill, a pain researcher from the University of Florida explains that “expect something, good or bad, and it impacts the activation of the brain regions the same as the actual experience would when generated in ‘reality’.”

On positive expectations, David says that “it makes sense to minimise one’s expectations of positive rewards in most situations.”

What they have described above is Samatva, or equanimity.

Sama means equal, and sāmya, meaning equal consideration towards all human beings – is a variant of the word.

योगस्थः कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय ।

सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्योः समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते ॥ ४८ ॥

yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṁ tyaktvā dhanañ-jaya

siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṁ yoga ucyate

Bhagavad Gīta 2.48

Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.

It is human tendency to go towards positive situations, and go away from negative ones.

The issue is that most of these situations are perceived, not actual. For example, when in school, we were naturally inclined towards subjects that we love, and we hated even opening the books of some other subjects (geography for instance). At work, we may like certain aspects of our jobs, and dislike others.

When we expect a raise, we become very happy and start planning for how the extra money can be spent. And when we don’t get it, we become sad and disappointed.

The root cause for this, as demonstrated scientifically, is the dopamine shot that we get from the expectation of a reward, which is the same feeling as the reward itself.

To be happy, science recommends that we train our brains to tone down expectations to a large extent – so that in case the situation turns out to be positive, it is unexpected and hence gives a higher reward (more happiness), and if it is negative, then we didn’t expect it anyway, so the downside is minimal. One can also use Pratipaksha Bhāvanā, or reappraisal of the situation to look at it differently, and maybe turn a negative into a positive.

You may think that this is easy to speak of, and difficult to do in reality. Yes, it is difficult.

We have been trained in the wrong way, and making a course correction is a tough ask. But not impossible. Let’s try bite-sized improvements – smaller situations where we can start to change our attitude and level of expectations.

My wife cooked today – is it tasty? The more you expect the food to be tasty, the higher the benchmark – and so even if the food is very tasty, you would feel a bit underwhelmed isn’t it? Try not expecting too much for a change – and you may find the food much tastier, and the wife much happier:)

I leave you with a message from my feathered friends – they chirp the same way in good times, and bad. Have they found the key to samatva? Maybe it was always there, it’s just that we lost it with time…You never know…