We all carry an image of ourselves in our minds. Our own impressions of our virtues and shortcomings dictate how we see the world, and feel about ourselves. So much of our daily happiness is predicated on how we view ourselves.

Some will say it’s a gift – the realization that your happiness depends on your view of yourself, also means that if we can somehow learn to craft an image of ourselves we love mentally, we will be happier.

“I am fat, I am poor, why am I still stuck in the same job.” – Bad self view, sorrow

“I am kind, I have loved ones, I am making a difference.” – Good self view, joy

So, if our mental image of ourselves determines a large part of our joy, and our own mental image is something we can engineer, it begs the question – why is there so much misery?

It is because we are very bad and drowning the noise of the external world, and investing in ourselves to let our mind create that positive self-image.

More specifically, how does an average city dweller “identify” himself? “I am an XYZ at a major international firm ABC. I make so much money in the year, and next year, I’ll be making more. I have 500 FB friends, and my last post of my Goa pic got 100 likes. So, life is good.” In one sentence, this view can be paraphrased as: “I am successfully able to craft an image of success and happiness for the outside world, hence all is good.”

The flaw – how the world sees you is not how you see yourself. And you live with yourself 24 hours a day.

A strong sense of identity cannot be predicated on possessions – job title, paycheck size, things. Because titles go, paychecks fluctuate, things are taken from you. When I moved back from the US, I was in the exact same spot – no job title, no paycheck, no possessions. For a while, I was completely lost. All I had believed myself to be (a Consultant with an elite firm in the Bay) was no longer true. I was a 27-year male who could sit in a park all day, and nobody would call him to check up on what he was upto.

But after a short period of self-doubt, I had the most awesome learning (so far) of my life.

I saw myself for what I truly was – another man with his set of strengths and weaknesses, starting from scratch. Once I realized my own self-image was worth nothing, and that the world owed me nothing, so much weight was lifted off my shoulders. I went around searching for independent assignments, took buses to get around Delhi, and stopped spending money on non-essential things because I did not know when my next paycheck from a short-freelance gig would come. Amidst all this chaos, I ended up doing the best work of my life as a project manager with the United Nations. The assignment took me to villages in Eastern UP, where I was finally able to do something meaningful with my management education – define budgeting framework for social justice programs in the villages, and train some people to become English and Math instructors to teach their fellow villagers.

Since then, I’ve settled (for now) to be part of an awesome start-up. The possessions are coming back. But one thing has changed fundamentally. The next time I need to go back to living without these things, it will not hurt. Because I am not my TV, or my car, or my shoe brand. What I am is a person who can fight, who can love others irrespective of his own circumstances, and who can keep going on. To me, that realization about myself is worth more than everything I ever had.

The challenge, it seems, is to be connected to this world, and yet be disconnected. Maybe this is what Buddha meant from the “middle path.” To be a part of it, but to remember it’s ephemeral. And to remember, that the only one we need to answer to at the end of the day is our own selves.