Healthy Aging: What is Mr. Krishnan’s Secret Sauce for Abundance of Well-being?
- We need an identity to belong, a purpose to be understood, and affiliation to be valued.
During my recent trip to India, I met my childhood friend’s parents — Mr. and Mrs. Krishnan. The Krishnans were my neighbors when I was growing up and practically raised me as a second set of parents. Mr. Krishnan was an avid cricket player in his youth and used to be the captain of the team in his college days. Now at the age of 85, he still plays cricket with his grandchildren and the various other children in the neighborhood.
Mr. Krishnan is in great health. He walks 4–5 miles every day, does yoga, goes on hikes, bikes to the nearby grocery store to run errands, and is a voracious reader. An engineer by profession, he is now retired and spends his time running a non-profit organization that raises funds for educating tribal children and children from impoverished communities. The Krishnans live in a multi-storied complex that houses about five hundred families. Many of his relatives live in the neighborhood as he hails from a large close-knit family. Their home is always open and during the day you can see a stream of different neighbors and friends dropping by. Some are retired, some are newly married couples, some are fresh graduates starting their first job, and others are families with teenagers. Everyone loves them and they lovingly welcome each person with a kind smile and open arms.
The complex houses a clubhouse where the various families get together and celebrate a variety of festivals. There are regular gatherings during the evenings for singing, chanting, dancing, and playing board games. Mr. Krishnan attends as many of these as possible. Spending an afternoon with this delightful couple is like soaking in a tub of oxytocin. It’s refreshing, inspiring, and rewarding.
What is Mr. Krishnan’s secret sauce for this abundance of well-being?
The cultural anthropologist and psychologist Dr. Mario Martinez who studied healthy centenarians from many different continents, says that most cultures teach us to be content with defining health as the absence of illness. But is there something beyond the absence of illness? If so, how do we define it? There is so much research about the causes of illness but how many of us have studied the causes of abundant health? The concept itself is quite alien to us says Dr. Martinez. In his book The Mindbody Self, he outlines the contributors of well-being that lead to healthy aging. Dr. Martinez proposes that good health is just one of the three components of wellness: an abundance of health, love, and wealth. After studying healthy centenarians, he defines personal wealth as going beyond monetary abundance to include having an abundance of good friends, creativity, passion for life, capacity to feel gratitude, and so on.
Pathways to Abundant Well-Being
As a human being, we all have three fundamental needs:
· To belong,
· To be understood,
· To be valued.
In order to fulfill these three primal needs, we need to explore these three questions in our lifetime, says Dr. Martinez:
· Who am I? — Identity
· What am I doing here? — Purpose
· Who cares? — Affiliation
The answers to these three questions set the perceived limits for the three basic needs to be fulfilled. We need an identity to belong, a purpose to be understood, and affiliation to be valued. Let’s unpack each of these in detail and also examine how it applies to Mr. Krishnan.
To Belong: Who Am I?
All of us are born and live within a socio-cultural context. In our early development, there are many contributors to the shaping of our identity such as our parents, grandparents, extended family, teachers, peers, religion, culture, the country we are born in, our economic status, ancestral traumas, gender expectations, birth order, and so on. Dr. Martinez calls these contributors “Cultural Editors”. Their voices have such a powerful influence over our lives that they can alter our gene expression. As an adult, we owe it to ourselves to deeply examine the voices and scripts of these powerful cultural editors and determine which ones are healthy for our well-being and which ones have to be edited out as they limit and damage us in some ways. Once we figure out who we truly want to be and write our own script, it becomes important to then protect it on a daily basis. Our bodies thrive on truth and love it when we live our daily lives on what we feel is true for us from moment to moment. Brene Brown called this “Living BIG — Boundaries, Integrity, Generosity”.
Boundaries: Prentis Hemphill beautifully articulated that “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously”. Setting benign boundaries from a place of self-love is a big part of your well-being.
Integrity: Brene defines integrity as:
· Choosing courage over comfort;
· Choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy;
· Practicing your values, not just professing them.
Generosity: Only when we have healthy benign boundaries and live from a place of integrity can we hold the generous view of others that everyone is doing the best they can and their best may vary from day to day. This applies to all of us. This view is what helps us practice forgiveness, non-judgment, and compassion. As Brene says practicing generosity means not creating a narrative based on a storyline that we have already played out, assuming we know another’s motives and why they do what they do.
Let’s see how these concepts apply to Mr. Krishnan.
Mr. Krishnan lives life on his terms. Many of his friends are caught in the cultural trap of looking at old age as a period of gloom and doom to be numbed with mindless television, complaining about aches and pains and, lamenting their regrets in life. Mr. Krishnan consciously chose to step out of this narrative and live passionately from his heart. He lives independently, has his own interests and hobbies, and constantly steps out of the boundaries of his culture. He defies the cultural norms of his country for a person his age and lives life based on what is true for him, unapologetically.
To be Understood: What am I doing here?
· Meaning: Having meaningful relationships where our actions and intentions are understood by the people who are intimate to us is one of the major contributors to abundant well-being. Research shows that people who are chronically misunderstood at work or at home and do not feel heard, feel frustrated, helpless, depressed, and suffer from low self-worth. But in order for us to be understood by others, we must first understand ourselves so that we can clearly, and confidently articulate our needs. One of the most critical tools to practice here is to constantly “fact-check” the stories we are making in our heads about ourselves and others. Embodying values such as not making assumptions about others, labeling others, not taking things personally can all add more meaning to our lives.
· Purpose: A strong sense of enthusiasm and excitement for what you do, the passion you experience in your work, relationships, and hobbies all enhance your health.
Mr. Krishnan has many meaningful relationships — first and foremost with his wife of over 60 years, his children, grandchildren, people in his building, and even the auto-rickshaw drivers, vendors in the market place and anyone he sees. He loves his philanthropic activities, has many hobbies, and is constantly learning something new. People find his enthusiasm for life infectious.
To Be Valued — Who Cares?
Loneliness has been described as the “Leprosy of the 21st Century”. There is so much research going on currently about the effects of this worldwide mental health pandemic. Loneliness is one of the primary reasons why we become susceptible to predators, spell casters, con artists, and cults.
· Inclusivity: For our better health it is important to seek out communities where we belong. Many of us do not know the difference between fitting in vs belonging. Brene describes the difference this way: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
· Bonding: Once we find a group where we experience true belonging, then we can enjoy many bonding experiences with them. Bonding increases when we experience triumphs and tribulations as a group. However, the key ingredient for both bonding and inclusivity is to develop openness and tolerance to connect with others.
· Curiosity: Curious people take an inquisitive keen interest in others and they seek novelty. The brain thrives on novelty. The psychiatrist and teacher Dan Siegel describes the concept called “SNAG” the brain which stands for Stimulate Neural Activation and Growth. As we age, we tend to become more and more rigid in our activities, friendships, belief systems, and so on. Frequently reviewing these and trying new things such as a new breakfast cereal, a new cuisine, or a new hobby keeps our brain cells healthy and improves neuroplasticity. Dr. Martinez says that curiosity is the antidote to wallowing in misery, rerunning failure, and fear of exploration.
· Rituals: Rituals are meaningful actions that define who we are in our culture. They keep us grounded during times of chaos and uncertainty, transmit cultural identity to our descendants, function as rites of passage, and carry other culturally venerated symbolism.
As we have seen Mr. Krishnan is a community builder and has a kind, gentle openness to others, takes a genuine keen interest in other people’s lives and stories without appearing intrusive. He practices many rituals such as walking with friends, hiking, biking to the grocery store, singing kirtans, chanting, celebrating the various festivals, and so on. It is no wonder that the Krishnans are such light bearers in their community and experiences abundant well-being in their lives.
Our good health is far more expansive than just the absence of illness. It includes many more things such as a sense of true belonging, living a life of integrity and values, passionate pursuits at work and home, meaningful relationships, novel experiences, curiosity about life, meaningful cultural rituals, practicing kindness, generosity, compassion, and so on. In summary here are the key takeaways:
· Seek your truth and live it on a daily basis
· Stand your sacred ground and set benign boundaries
· Practice making generous assumptions about others
· Have meaningful relationships
· Have a purpose to your life that has an altruistic element to it
· Choose communities where you belong and not fit in
· Be inclusive of others
· Practice curiosity and novelty
· Be passionate about life
· Maintain cultural rituals as part of your legacy.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming… “Wow! What a Ride!”
— Hunter Thompson
Vinutha Mohan is a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma. Before her avatar as a therapist, she spent over 15 years in the corporate world.