I have always been mesmerized watching small children at play. Completely engaged in the moment, they are living immersively, without any care as to who might be watching. They never hesitate to show their emotion or affection, letting it flow unhindered, whether through a joyful hug or a loud belly laugh. These bundles of curiosity act like small sponges, soaking up everything that is presented to them, or anything that they seek and discover. Like a flower that needs the correct balance of air, water, and sun to fully blossom, children only want to Love, Learn and Play — and are in a state of flourishing when they engage in these three essential pursuits. And what if we, too, prioritized Love, Learn, and Play, or LLP? Perhaps we too would also flourish.
The older I have gotten, the more I have wondered why flourishing seems so much more complex for adults, and what we can do to make it simpler. For too long throughout human history, we have had many prescriptions for happiness, but even the wisest among us have failed to articulate a model of flourishing that everyone can understand and follow. The complex language of poets, philosophers, and artists might possess great beauty, but as Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things”. So why shouldn’t the formula for human flourishing be something simple, expressible in a few single words?
Feeling Something Is Missing
I had led a fortunate life, had a successful career, reached a form of financial stability and had an extended family that loved me and provided me with the emotional anchor that I needed. I had the best education at IIT, India’s equivalent of MIT, and then Stanford, working with three iconic companies in India — Hindustan Unilever, Reliance Industries, and Blackstone. My last job at Blackstone was a dream job and had all the accoutrements that went with it — money, fame, power, and friends. I did not seek them, but in plenty they came, due to my professional success which was not a result of ambition but rather the right combination of luck and a strong sense of duty. Put simply, my peers perceived my life as perfect, but inside I knew something was missing. I had an abundance of everything that most people desire, but I knew that I was not truly flourishing. I had to press pause, to seek answers from different wisdom traditions and modern knowledge disciplines. The practice of having regular conversations with myself — which I saw echoed in the life of the Roman Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius — was particularly valuable to me during this time. I gave up my dream job and headed to Harvard for some introspection and reflection at the age of 63, enrolling in their Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) program to seek out answers to several lifelong questions that had been previously put on hold.
After three years of rich intellectual exposure at Harvard, the dots started to connect for me. I realized the distinct truth in that there are two selves — an authentic self that we are born with and the socialized self that we construct over the top of this as we grow up to become integrated into society. I realized that during this process I had gradually and unconsciously strayed from prioritizing the three core longings of the authentic self as I was discharging my duties as a professional: the artificial desires of my socialized self were starving me of my deeply natural needs for loving, learning, and playing. I discovered the flourishing framework that I now call LLP — Love, Learn and Play. It seems so obvious now that these are the things which matter most in life, but as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”
I also realized during my time at Harvard that happiness is a social construct. I was able to identify the dominant but false narratives and metaphors that were inbuilt in the social formula of a successful life. When we chase happiness based on this social formula, we are led astray from truly flourishing. It became clear to me that money, power, and fame are not the keys to happiness; I realized instead that the only necessary components of flourishing in life are loving, learning, and playing. The more I focused on these three things in my own life, the more convinced I became in the power of this framework for flourishing, as it endowed me with a much more fulfilling life that money and fame never could. As the early expressionist painter Hans Hoffman put it: “the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hence, the tagline for UEF — “To Flourish is to Love, Learn, and Play.”
The Epidemic of Unhappiness
I am not alone in feeling something was missing in my life despite my many material successes. According to Harvard University’s former president, Derek Bok: “people are essentially no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite a doubling or quadrupling of average per capita income.” Let me illustrate this paradox with an example from my own life. In 1997 I bought a beautiful apartment in Upper West New York overlooking the famous Central Park. For someone like me, born in Old Delhi, this was more than I had ever dreamed of. Later, a very dear friend who was my neighbor and had inspired me to move to that part of New York moved to the other side on 5th avenue and invited me to his new apartment. It was twice the size of his previous apartment and very beautifully decorated. When I came back home, I was very unhappy for a while as I did not like my apartment anymore. It felt so small and inferior compared to my friend’s apartment. But then I had a dialogue with myself, reflecting on how foolish this reaction was — after all, most people would probably be thrilled to be in my place. More importantly it satisfied all my needs for an elegant life. However, I allowed myself to compare what I had to what my friend had, rather than focusing on what I really needed. I was possessed by my wants until I came to see that these were based only on social expectations of happiness and therefore offered little personal fulfillment. After 24 years, I still enjoy living in the same apartment.
What Went Wrong: The Means-Ends Inversion
John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes advised people, centuries ago, to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful”. We simply fail to heed the age-old wisdom reiterated by these wise philosophers because in our contemporary culture we have become so preoccupied with means that we have lost sight of ends or, to be more precise, means and ends have become inverted. In other words, our means have come to constitute our ends. This phenomenon of means-ends inversion (MEI) is happening in all walks of life, at the level of individuals, organizations, societies, and countries, without us being aware of it. When we lose track of the fact that money, fame and power are a means and not the end and get caught up in their immediate pleasures and trappings, we err and miss out on flourishing.
The U.S. is a prime example of means-ends inversion at a national level. Citing the U.S. in particular is important because, in the words of Nobel Laureate Vaclav Havel, “the United States bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction the world will take”.
The freedom, the resources and the dynamism of US society are such that it can achieve whatever it wants to as a nation. The US emerged onto the world stage as an independent nation by putting pen to paper and beautifully articulating the loftiest ideals of universal love for humanity, but has the actual end of enacting these ideals ever been truly fulfilled? The US is still home to the greatest institutions of higher learning on the planet, but how much of the knowledge contained within those walls really makes its way to enhance flourishing for the masses? The spirit of play in the US has catalyzed some of the greatest inventions and innovations of all time, but how many of these have truly contributed to improving overall human flourishing? In other words, society in the US should be deeply engaged in LLP, but is it?
UNICEF (2007, 2013) puts the United States at or near the bottom on a variety of measures of child well-being compared to other developed nations. The National Research Council (2013) documents that people under age 50 in the United States, no matter their background, are at or near the bottom on a variety of well-being measures when compared to 16 other developed nations. A recent US survey found that only 25% of 18–34-year-olds describe themselves as “very happy”. This problem is not confined to the US alone. Around 300 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression and around 800,000 commit suicide each year.
The material progress the entire world has experienced as a result of capitalism has made us physically healthier and granted many of us access to previously unfathomable luxuries. However, universal flourishing has not kept pace with the amazing material progress that we humans have made. Maximizing Growth in GDP should not be our goal but we should instead see GDP as a means toward maximizing flourishing. Similarly, capitalism should be a means through which we produce efficiency in deploying resources rather than a religion as it is for many conservative thinkers.
Imagine if the US defined maximizing human flourishing as its ultimate end as opposed to the maximizing of GDP!!!!! There would be no need for this article.
Where We Go From Here
Perhaps the key to flourishing is simpler than we think and applicable no matter the stage of life we find ourselves in or our environmental conditions. My studies and life experiences have led me to believe that the answer is in this simple LLP framework — loving, learning and playing — the very same triple helix that brings joy to children no matter where they live in the world or their socio-economic status. If everything we do is done with an LLP mindset, this will lead to true flourishing. This may seem overly simplistic, but, as the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran said, “The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.” This is what I think the world needs: a simple formula for human flourishing that will be so self-evidently powerful in practice that it becomes obvious to everyone.
The only mantra we need is to do everything with an LLP mindset. To flourish is to love, learn and play.