by Sanj Katyal

Sanj Katyal, MD, a graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology and Positive Psychology Coaching program, is the founder of Positive Psychology Program for Physicians. The following is an excerpt from his new book Positive Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Wisdom to Create a Flourishing Life.

After finishing my residency and fellowship, I was on the typical path of most young doctors. I was excited about my new private practice job and the associated increase in income. I bought a new car, sold our small house in the city, and moved to a larger house in a good suburban school district. All the years of hard work had finally paid off, and I expected to have a dramatic boost in my happiness level.

To everyone around me, I was living the dream. However, I soon became aware of two major problems: my expenses were increasing with my salary, and I wasn’t any happier than I had been during other periods in my life. In many ways, my new lifestyle often caused more anxiety and stress. It was at that point that I realized I needed to change my behaviors. I needed to learn different things in order to live a different life.

Despite humanity’s near-single-minded drive to achieve happiness and contentment, the majority of people on the planet are far from their eudaimonia. A state of fully realized potential, or dharma, requires insight and a deep connection to your true self. Without this self-awareness, you can’t fulfill the fundamental need for meaning and impact. We are all meant to engage in a continuous process of learning, growing, and living well. Unlocking this potential in order to live a more authentic, joyful, and meaningful life can, and must, become our life’s work.

There have been some common themes in the steps that I have taken to move closer to my full potential. Perhaps the most fundamental theme is one of self-awareness. In order to gain this insight, I needed to stop living life on autopilot and ask myself some difficult questions. One of the most important habits that helped me to answer these questions was to begin journaling consistently.

My journal was a sanctuary where I could freely discuss my worries and perceived failings. There were many days when I could feel a deep unrest inside of me. In the past, I would simply push past this feeling, which would eventually go away. By taking the time to write about it, I discovered that the reason for the unrest was often because I had acted in a way that I knew was not optimal. The inner tension could be related to an uncomfortable interaction at work or an anxiety about a future event that was out of my control.

In time, I could occasionally recognize this unrest and resolve it without the need to write about it. Keeping a journal also gave me the space to develop more insight and a broader perspective on important topics that I was learning over the years. I could sketch new ideas and try to put complex concepts into my own words to gain a better understanding of them.

While I wrote extensively on many big-picture questions, there emerged three major questions that helped me explore the gap between my current life and my fully realized potential:

    • ● What am I doing?
    • ● How am I acting?
    • ● Why does it matter?

The first question I asked was “What am I doing?” This has to do with the vision of my place in the world, my unique dharma, my sacred duty. I realized that if we don’t know where we want to go, have a firm vision of what we want to be and how we want to be living, then we will just bounce around reacting to various people and circumstances. This was how I often felt in my own life.

When exploring what I was meant to do in this world and trying to answer the larger question of “What am I doing?” I took time to journal on some deeper questions:

        • ● What did I love to do as a child?
        • ● What do I do that doesn’t feel like work?
        • ● What would I pay to do?
        • ● If I had $10 million in the bank and had already traveled everywhere that I wanted to go, what would I do each day?

This process took a several months. I forced myself to answer these questions in my journal. When I did, I realized that what I really loved to do was to learn about how to live better. I really enjoyed studying concepts at the intersection of philosophy and psychology that gave me more insight on leading an optimal life.

When thinking about my younger years, I had always gravitated toward books that tried to provide answers to the deeper questions of life. I remember reading The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and I’m OK — You’re OK by Thomas Harris in high school. On my visits to India as a child, I picked up several books by the well-known Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. As I looked around me, I saw many people who had good lives by anyone’s standards but were not living the Good Life, one of flourishing or eudaimonia. Instead, there was a lot of anxiety, stress, depression, and generalized discontent. People were functioning but not flourishing, and this included me.

I knew through my reading and learning that there must be a different way to live, and I was determined to find it. I thought about my kids and how I wanted them to learn these principles earlier in life. That deep desire is what drives me to continue to learn. It drove me to write this book. It drives me to teach these principles to a variety of people from students to doctors.

This leads to the second question on my road to fully realized potential: how am I acting?

I realized that it’s not enough to have a clear vision of what I want to do if I lie, cheat, and treat people poorly in my effort to fulfill this vision. This will not lead to a life of flourishing. Answering this question when I was younger would have been great. Understanding what virtue meant, and how important concepts like integrity, honesty, and compassion contributed to an overall sense of tranquility certainly would have made my youth better. I struggled mightily in these areas. While I have grown into these virtues, it has not been without significant effort.

The first part of learning to act well was to understand the concept of virtue, defined as “excellence of character.” It has become clear to me that there are unshakable principles of effective living that are common across all cultures and time periods. As I read many authors, ranging from Seneca to Stephen Covey, they all preached that living the Good Life is synonymous with developing excellent character traits like integrity, perseverance, gratitude, courage, and service. For me, one very simple way to develop virtue was to adopt the Golden Rule: treat everyone the way I want to be treated. Although this seemed overly simple and even trite, it really worked when I thought about it in the moment of a stressful interaction. If someone interrupted me at work, I could respond more often with patience rather than react with annoyance. Instead of becoming upset at a rude driver, I could empathize that they may be having a bad day.

The second part of acting well was having a clear understanding of what values and behaviors were important to me. What does my ideal self look like?

        • ● Did I want to be calm and patient in the face of stressors, or did I want to overreact at every little inconvenience?
        • ● Did I want to appreciate what I have — health, security, freedom — or did I want to complain about what I didn’t have?
        • ● Did I want to treat others how I want to be treated, or just treat them based on how I felt at that moment?
        • ● Did I want to be authentic and honest with people, or simply act the way I thought would make me more popular?
        • ● Did I want to be optimistic and enthusiastic and focus on what was going well, or did I want to get down on myself at the first sign of struggle?

By having this clear vision of my ideal self, I have been able to answer the question “How am I acting?” Of course, many things still upset me, and I’m often far from perfect in my actions, but at least I know how I should be acting.

The final question that I then asked myself was, “Why does it matter?” What difference did I make? To avoid regret later in life, I wanted to face these difficult questions while I still had time. It’s commonly said that, on your deathbed, only two things matter:

        • ● Who did you become — did you realize your full potential?
        • ● How many people did you serve? How many lives did you improve?

By answering the first two questions— “What am I doing?” and “How am I acting?” —I could get closer to my unique calling in life and try to perform it with excellent character.

There was one final step on the road to an optimal life: applying these efforts to something larger than myself. The concept of service to others is a common theme among most religious and philosophical texts. Modern psychology has scientifically validated service as a key component to happiness. For me, serving others has never come naturally. What I have come to realize is that an optimal (flourishing) life consists of both purpose (fully realized potential) and meaning (service). I believe that we all have the same purpose in life: to fully realize our potential, our highest self, in what we do and how we act. However, it’s not until we use this potential for a cause larger than ourselves that we are able to gain meaning and truly lead an optimal life.

Sanj Katyal holds a bachelor of science with university honors in chemical and biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a medical degree from New York University School of Medicine, as well as certifications in Positive Psychology and Positive Psychology coaching from Wholebeing Institute. He has published and lectured extensively on well-being and the science of happiness to audiences ranging from college students to physicians. Sanj lives with his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his hobbies include kayaking, writing, and traveling.