Recently I was working with people struggling in a long and complex conflict situation. Afterwards I thought about how important it is to manage our emotional distress by shifting our focus to what we can do for ourselves to increase our happiness.
I found this distillation of ancient wisdom about happiness from the Stoics in a recent post by Eric Barker in the blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Simple steps but not easy. Here’s a summary:
1. Events Don’t Upset You. Beliefs Do: Only the end of the world is the end of the world.
If you lose your job you might feel excited or devastated depending on your beliefs. If you believe that the job was bad for you and you will have no problem getting another job, you will feel excited by the opportunity. If you believe that it was your perfect job and you will never be able to get another job like it, you will be devastated. The objective event is the same, the emotion is different.
The emotion we experience is based on our belief. In Shakespeare’s words, “Nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”
Most of the bad feelings we have are caused by irrational beliefs. The helpful approach is to focus on those negative emotions about an event, rather than focusing on the event that we think was the cause of our negative emotions.
Ask yourself what you believe about that event. And then ask yourself if it’s rational:
- “If my partner dumps me, I’ll never get over it.”
- “If I lose my job, my life is over.”
These are irrational beliefs, and if those are your beliefs you will likely be anxious, angry or depressed.
If you revise your beliefs and you can change your feelings: “Even if I get fired I can get another job. I’ve been unemployed before and I got through it.”
2. Control What You Can. Ignore The Rest: Worrying never fixed anything.
Remember the old serenity prayer? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
Much of what we experience as stress and worry are events over which we have no control. If we worry about getting laid off in a market downturn, our worry will not change the market downturn or the employer’s decision. Worry is another irrational response that we need to train ourselves to leave behind for the sake of our happiness.
However if there is any part of the event that you do control, it’s better to stop worrying and take action. Improving the quality of your work so as to be as lay-off-proof as possible and looking for other job opportunities are both elements within your control. Not only does this cut down your stress, it also means that you are spending your energy on action that will make a difference for you.
The image with this article explains this point visually.
3. Accept Everything. But Don’t Be Passive: Nobody recommends denial. Accept. And then do something.
If we choose not to get upset about irrational emotional responses or worrying, what should we do? Accept things as they are and then decide what to do about them.
Acceptance is not resignation; acceptance is the opposite of denial. We may wish things were otherwise but it is irrational to deny the reality facing us. We can think, “I should not be laid off,” but that will not change reality if we are given the pink slip. “Should” is a very popular way of denying reality. Denial is another irrational belief and is going to lead us to those negative emotions as in step 1.
Instead if we accept reality we can decide what we can control, and then take action on those controllable factors, as in step 2. Maybe this lay-off is going to lead to a new opportunity which you could not imagine in the old job.
4. Choose Whose Child You Will Be: “What would Batman do in this situation?”
Now shifting away from the reactive to the positive, take a look around and realize that you are not alone on this island. There are mentors, teachers, role models and lots of other people to learn from.
Seneca said “ We like to say that we don’t get to choose our parents, that they were given by chance – yet, we can truly choose whose children we wish to be.”
Identify a person you really admire, a person who is doing something that you would eventually like to do, including living life well. Interview them about how they were able to accomplish what they did and the steps that you could take to get to that level.
Next time you face a challenge, think of that person you admire. Research shows that asking yourself “What would _____ do?” can have powerful positive effects on your behavior.
5. Morning and Evening Rituals Are Essential: Plan for the day, then reflect on the day.
Rituals can help you recognize whether you are improving.
Every morning think about all the negative things that will be brought to you by the people you face, try to understand why they will behave that way, and then “forgive and love them for it”.
At the end of the day reflect on what has happened and what you can improve.
“As long as you live, keep learning how to live” is another quote from Seneca. We all have the potential to become better.
One final tip:
The final tip is from Marcus Aurelius, “Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours.”
A few thousand years later, the research shows that gratitude still makes a difference to happiness. Subtracting cherished moments from your life makes you appreciate them more, makes you grateful and makes you happier.
“What if I never met my partner? What if my child was never born? I am so lucky to have them in my life.”
Take action in 5 steps and spend this summer being happier - and grateful that you read this blog post.
Build your conflict resolution skills by registering for Fundamentals of Mediation. The next course starts September 27, 2017.
Read Eric Barker’s full post here: http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2016/09/ancient-wisdom/